Daphne Marlatt's breath of fresh ear

The Globe and Mail

Daphne Marlatt, over these years, has shown a lot of us that serious writing does not have to belong to a specific genre or form or gender or nationality. Anyone who has a larynx or the memory of one is ready to say, and with some hard work can become a writer. Then there is the question of becoming a good one. You need an ear for that. A Marlatt ear. - Poet George Bowering

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No celebration of Planetary Poetry Month 2010 could call itself complete without the inclusion of an inter / view with one of Canada's pre-eminent stylists; thus, we at IOW proudly present the following exclusive with Daphne Marlatt, explorer, visionary and, most keenly, an extraordinarily articulate and genuinely open human being whose thoughts on literature, identity and genre exquisitely express a comprehensive worldview in her own words.



"You remember - what is it you remember? the feel of home, that moment of coming into your body . . ." - From The Given (2008)



Born in Melbourne, Australia (1942), Daphne Marlatt - poet, novelist, playwright, editor and feminist theorist - spent a large part of the first decade of her life in Penang, Malaysia before relocating to Vancouver where she would live, learn and ultimately earn her B.A. (1964) from the University of British Columbia. Subsequently, she hop-scotched across North America with her first husband, clinical psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, prior to spending time in Bloomington, IN (where she completed her M.A. in Comparative Literature in 1968). Following her relationship with poet and photographer Roy Kiyooka, she and her son, Kit (b. 1969), settled on Canada's left coast where she continues to live and thrive with her Significant Other, Bridget. An Officer of the Order of Canada, the award-winning OneOf was also honoured with an LL.D. from the University of Western Ontario in 1996.



Can a poem break your heart?





Yes. The same way a piece of music can - that sudden access of emotion. But so much can break our hearts.



If pressed, could you describe or summarize your poetic aesthetic? You tend to break apart language to reassemble it in viscerally searing or illuminating ways. How does that affect your theoretical assessment of what it is you do (and, by extension, cannot but do, make or shape)?



The focus of my aesthetic . . . It's much more to do with the energies that connect disparate phenomena, it's about movement & shift, not essence. This constantly shifting mesh of phenomena that we inhabit on so many different levels at once - tiny nodes of moving connection. How language reflects this. And the despair of trying to register the multi-levelled in a language that builds in linear fashion syntactically. Yet syntax carries the development of thought so we can't do without it.



You're called a lesbian poet. Does such a "label" offend or delight you? Are you not a poet, period, in other words? Also, what does it mean to you if you call yourself a "language poet?" How does this distinguish what you write from, say, another kind of poetry; what do you perceive those other kinds of poetry to be?



Why should I feel offended by a term it's taken women centuries to claim without shame? I don't call myself a language poet, not in the specific sense generated by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in how language works.



If told you were forbidden to write as, say, women in Afghanistan are told, how would you deal with that?



I would be very distressed if told I could not read, could not learn. This, it seems to me, is anterior to & fundamental for writing. Without the explorations of thought, which are fuelled by reading/learning, wouldn't writing, if one could write at all, be limited to minimal self-registering - "I was here?"



Here you are: You work in several genres and media; can you say why each attracts you and what differences or challenges you've encountered in each enterprise unique to it or how well one translates to another?



Genres first as that's how it started - a reaction, when I started writing in the '60s, against the strictness of genre categories. As soon as I discovered the prose poem, both contemporary, as in Robert Duncan's Structures of Rime, and further back, William Carlos Williams, Rimbaud and Baudelaire - and then what I would call poetic prose (& I don't just mean lyrical) - HD's novels, & Virginia Woolf's, Sheila Watson, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley's fiction - that's what I remember reading; and then, what my immediate contemporaries were writing, George Bowering's A Short Sad Book, say, or bp [Nichol's] Journal, I was hooked on the expansive possibilities such writing afforded. A prose that wasn't led by narrative, though it might contain a narrative, but that responded to the associative movements of thought immediate to/with/in language. Immediacy was what it was about, the immediate phenomenality of being alive, responding to the astonishingly vast network of phenomena one was part of, & which, if looked at closely, were part of one's "self."



That said, I've moved, & still move back and forth between, the strictness of very short lines of poetry - taut, concise - to the accumulating rhythms of very long lines in long sentences. I love the understated yet suggestive effects that can be gained from the tangential capacities of English syntax. When it came to writing Ana Historic, I learned how effective broken syntax and short sentences can be - I think that was part of hearing the casual speaking voice & learning how to write dialogue.



As for challenge, well it's more like fascination - what can be brought over from one genre into another & still work? My struggle has been with narrative in that I'm drawn to it but dislike fiction driven by plot. My sense of narrative is probably less fictional than poetic - predominantly rhythmical. I'm interested in character, not so much in what characters do as how they "read" their surrounding & overlapping worlds. How they think. Which of course involves language - the emotional resonance that certain words or phrases will have for a character, how these will shift when run up against other words or phrases. Tension, yes. That rather than plot.



For someone who believed (on the basis of a first year creative-writing course) that the one genre she would never be able to write was a play, I've now become someone who has completed a first short film script. It was a long journey with many happenchance & collaborative prompts along the way.



The Noh play ( The Gull) was a big part of that journey. It must be the easiest entry into play-writing for a poet because it's such a poetic form. The hard part was learning the very strict structure, strict because the narrative progressions, the musical passages & moods, & the way the words move are all intricately tied together in a traditionally prescribed sequence.



The overall arc seems to have been in the last few years towards more intensely collaborative projects that have taken me into other media: From The Gull to The Portside to Like Light Off Water, the collaborative CD (based on the Steveston poems, with musician-composer friends Robert Minden & Carla Hallett), which has since spun off into live performances together. We performed our first hour-long concert last year in Richmond . . . Actually, a lot of my work has been collaborative, from my early oral history days ( Steveston Recollected, Opening Doors) to the present. I've learned so much from working with other marvellous writers and performers . . . I could say that whether it's been writing or editing literary journals or books or moving into the sphere of performance, my learning has been with and through so many wonderfully generous others. The companionship, the multiple inspirations, the inner necessity of various structures, the linguistic insights - so many gifts they have given.



Identity and / or place, rootedness, rootlessness, alienation, oppression, self, other, ego, all such - literally - inform much of your work (despite the genre in which you choose to create or play); your writing often turns to landmarks (both interior and exterior) to convey its purpose, intent, meaning, etc. What fascinates you about place, that physical entity and its metaphorical translation into the word made solid, so to speak?



It's what fascinates me about bodies - bodies of land, the bodies of lovers & friends & family, bodies of the animals we live with, the bodies of trees & the body of rain, that great body the earth we live on & from - how all these translate into the body of language, the language we speak & write. And then there is death, alienation, rootlessness, silencing, ego barriers, all the forms of lostness you name that counteract the immediacy of bodies. How both sides of this coin are mediated through power relations, both internal & social/political. How energies run in, through, & beneath those visible channels of power. The terrain of spirit underlying the terrains we have already mapped & think we know our way through.



Why do you generally tend to lean upon long forms; and, in that regard, what role does narrative play in your poetry most specifically?



I like the developmental possibilities long forms offer. Long-range rhythms, a feeling of openness & pure potential that is always present when one starts working on something that feels "large." Of necessity, the largeness of that potential closes down the further you get into it but it's a wonderful high to begin with.



What's the point of all of it? What do you hope your work provides for others, does for others, gives to the human universe?



I often ask myself what's the point of it all. Why use up so much paper, so much electricity, so many trees when the earth is being rapidly deforested - & all for the sake of yet another poem, another novel? A big carbon debt - because it's not just the human universe we live in. But in my blackest moods Bridget will remind me of the times someone has told me how much one of my books or poems has meant to her or him. So yes, how humans think reflects (on) their environment. Hopefully, something gets transmitted, a widening of thought, an understanding of what we have in common in a difficult relationship, a painful event, a sense of this time so full of injustice & blind action. It takes constant effort to widen our attention to what lies beyond our individual self-interested aims - so I keep hoping that what I write will contribute a little to that collective effort.



Name one thing beyond the world of arts and letters that you could not bear losing, one thing (not a person) that would diminish your life or world or . . .



I am trying to be aware of losing everything - individually, we all must in the end. But do we have to lose everything for future generations as well?



". . . the alphabet of fear, a current running just offshore, off the edge of some clan pier which wasn't mine, the sinking feel of footings underwater, ankle-deep on what remains, afraid i'll drown, swept out (there was a broom) to sea . . ." - From Salvage (1991)

Photograph of Daphne Marlett courtesy of Roy Miki with grateful thanks and regards

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FYI: Martyn Joseph kicks off "Because You Can" in Cobourg, ON May 6th: The singer is touring Ontario with his song-writing partner Stewart Henderson. The show @ St. Peters Anglican Church features both poetry and music in support of World Vision Canada . . . Lynda MacGibbon, in Times & Transcript, writes beautifully about the twilight years of poet Douglas Lochhead . . . This Sunday May 2nd (10:00 a.m.), given the "purpose of the Toronto New School of Writing is to offer creative and critical writing workshops led by writers who have an interest in art creation moreso than marketability," lit-lovers will delight in the first of a quartet of classes headed up by Victor Coleman @ 283 College Street . . . And, should you find yourself in NYC that same day (5:00 p.m), you're invited to join a dozen poets reading their works inspired by Nirvana @ The Cakeshop . . . Guernica author Melanie Janisse will sign copies of her book, Orioles in the Oranges, @ this year's Springsong on Pelee Island. Tickets can be ordered in advance for $65 and include a banquet with Margaret Atwood and Brian Brett (nominated for the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize) @ the Wine Pavilion May 8th @ 6:00 p.m. . . . In The NYRB Blog, Charles Simic bares it all in "Confessions of a Poet Laureate" . . . and . . .



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