Lea Graham's first book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You is forthcoming August 2011 from No Tell Books. She is also the author of the chapbook Calendar Girls (above ground press, 2006). Her poems, collaborations, reviews and articles have been published in journals and anthologies such as American Letters & Commentary, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor, Notre Dame Review and The Capilano Review. Her translations are forthcoming in The Alteration of Silence: Recent Chilean Poetry through the University of New Orleans Press. She is Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a native of Northwest Arkansas.
Playing the Field: An Interview with Dennis Cooley, by Lea Graham
To be around the Canadian Prairie poet, Dennis Cooley, is to feel as if you, too, are from the Prairies. It’s your literature, too. His facility and delight in Canadian literature (“Can lit”), and Prairie writing, specifically, creates an enthusiastic kinship. I first met Cooley about eight years ago at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts where he had been invited to read by the Chair of the English Department, who loved his work for its Chaucerian resonance. My Chair asked if I would like to have him, this poet from the Canadian Prairies, talk to my class and maybe read some poems. Little did I know then how that singular meeting would connect me to—then hurtle me into—Canadian Prairie literature. After our initial meeting, Dennis began recruiting me to present at St. John’s College’s Prairie Literature Conference that next fall in Winnipeg. Along with the camaraderie, he is the modest and sometimes shy Canadian, the prodigious poet and critic, the fiercely articulate scholar, the still-reverent farm boy, the prankster and joker-pal and king of pun. He and his wife, Diane, are well-known for their hospitality in their Winnipeg home, where over the last years; I and many others have spent evenings talking with them and writers such as David Arnason, Aritha Van Herk, and the late Robert Kroetsch.
Dennis Cooley’s poetry plays the field of the page. Nicole Markotić has written that his work “asks readers to question inherited assumptions about the inherited structures of poetry and the privileged inclusion such structures assume. He invites [us] to cross…myriad poetic borders…. The frenetic madness of the page is a roller-coaster ride, a poetry amusement park, and each word leads to the next line break twist, the next genre shout” (qtd. in Cooley xi). Yet, like the root of “enthusiasm”—en theos—this poetry leads us to the sacred. The play implies something very serious is in explorative process and procession.
This interview took place over the course of summer 2010 by email and in person, at Dennis’s home in Winnipeg where I stayed with him and Diane for a few days.
I would like to begin our conversation with talking about the influence of different landscapes on your work. When reading your poems, I am always made aware of its topography. The poems stagger, stutter and sprinkle the space of the page, to paraphrase Nicole Markotić, and the words and lines suss out multiple meanings and soundings. I suppose I would say you “play the field,” in the best sense, as a kind of errant farmer, not content to sow it straight. So, I am curious to know how much you attribute that to your early farming landscape? Or to expand that, how has your sense of place—the prairies/the farm, the town/urban, and the university/classroom shaped your work in its form, concerns and energies? How much and in what ways do you believe these physical spaces to have influenced your art?
I find these kinds of questions hard to field, though I love your idiom. Playing the field—that’s wonderful. One thing that has emerged pretty strongly in the poetry is the land as page. Not a radically new metaphor, I know, but I probably use it more than others, and I’ve tried to tease out those terms in what I do. There’s the poem about father as farmer-author, and one about ploughing my uncle’s land, and the correction line by my uncle’s place, and who knows how many other pieces?, a lot of them unpublished. But that metaphor comes as much from literary understanding as memories of farming or viewing the prairies. Some will hear the Olsonian echo but my sense of poetic line is multiply shaped and it works on many different principles, often at the same time or at lest within the same poem. There’s an essay, “Breaking and Entering,” that attempts to identify the reasons behind various lineations and to show how they might work. The inscribings are there for poet and farmer alike. I so much liked the idea that when I put together an anthology of prairie poetry I called it inscriptions.
What makes me wary of explanations for poetic shapes as mirrors to landscape is the realization that most prairie poets do not sprinkle letters across the page as I do, and more than a few of them are puzzled or offended by my propensities. It may be just as reasonable to argue that a line of prairie poetry would be long and horizontal inasmuch as it reflected the landscape, I suppose.
What I would say about a strong and continuing line of influence would be the various family narratives that appear, that and the strongly filtered remembrances of the animals and the fields that were part of the farm. But then I can’t see what I’ve written with the eye of someone who did not come from the prairies and I’m sure that someone such as yourself can discern all kinds of influences and continuities. And now that you mention, well of course, there are huge influences on the stuff I do, including, I suppose, that endless long poem, love in a dry land, I’ve been writing since 1989. I mean the pages have been saturated by an acute sense of sun and light since the very beginning. Robert Kroetsch has mocked this, said that I could be an evangelical preacher who has been stricken with revelation, but the truth is, the god’s own truth is, where I come from (Estevan, Saskatchewan) has the highest annual hours of sunshine in all of Canada, and in the summer it is often the hotspot in Canada. On the farm the sun hammered down full time and the spaces were wide and open. Weren’t many places to duck, though I loved the sun. Plenty of light to go around. I am absolutely fascinated by light and shadow, as a person every bit as much as when I am writing poetry.
But I’ve got to say that the literary and academic world has had an enormous impact on what I do and how I do it. Whatever sense of poetry I have has been deeply indebted to models and sources that could be readily identified. I came some time ago to arguing that poetry begets poetry, at least formally, and often in more particular ways as well. And a person needs to happen upon propitious times. I was really lucky to arrive in Winnipeg in 1973. What I found there, over the next few years, was a wild exuberance in teaching and writing and editing and publishing—a clutch of crazy young academics and graduate students who threw themselves into a burgeoning literary world. I strongly suspect I would not have begun writing poetry if there had not been that mad confluence of energies and passions around St. John’s College.
I often think about how the move from the rural to the (more) urban has been a kind of fracture for poets working in the latter part of the 20th century. I think so many of us have had at least some experience of moving off the farm or the rural into the less isolated busy-ness of the urban or even suburban. Do you think that the economic displacement from the family farm to town or city that happened in the latter part of the 20th century to many prairie poets had any kind of impact on your poetics? I wonder if the multiple landscapes with their attendant rhythms and economic or political concerns might have had at least an indirect bearing on your writing?
I suspect you are dead on in this speculation. That relocation has been, as you say, widespread among prairie poets, whose personal memories (often their most powerful memories) were inflected by their lives on farms or small towns, and who then went on to acquire a lot of savvy about reading and writing. Where does that put you? You’ve got any number of options, of course, but a common one has been to write as contemporary poet about earlier times.
There’s something more to this, too, I think. If the writing were solely a matter of unreflecting personal memory (which it seldom if ever is, I think), it might be of limited value and it certainly wouldn’t be postmodern. But for a lot of prairie poets the writing has been more basically and more radically attempts to bring their worlds into attention—in Robert Kroetsch’s more flamboyant terms, to bring “our” world “into existence.” One passion that drives prairie poets (certainly drives those whose work I think is most passionate about the region) is an acutely felt sense of speaking, almost as if for the first time, from, about, to, (for?) various corners of their world. Inasmuch as that has been true, inasmuch as they have felt a painful sense of erasure or illegibility, those writers (Robert Kroetsch, David Arnason, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, Lorna Crozier, Birk Sproxton, many others) have thrown themselves into writing those interstices. An unsympathetic reader (and I can think of one or two, who speak in the name of sophistication and resistance to “reference”) might be quick to accuse the poets of naiveté and nostalgia. I think those charges miss the mark. What you do get, I think, is a dynamic hybrid. The poetry invokes a world of felt experience on the prairies, including, often, memories, but it does so in a kind of writing that is a long way from simple realism. There are poets who want to write their worlds into attention but who realize that cannot be immediately or simply done.
You have written on the poet Robert Duncan, and so I wonder how much you still feel his influence in your work? There seems to be a clear connection between your concerns and his, especially regarding “the field,” yet, quite differently voiced. His lines in “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” “god-step at the margins of thought/quick adulterous tread at the heart” seem kin to what you are trying to do with your forms since you are often concerned with both the literal and figurative margins. What connection do you see between your work and his? What Duncanian influence do you think has remained with you in your more recent work?
For quite a few years I had come to thinking Duncan had very little influence on my writing, other than the interest in an opened page and variable lines upon the page. And now I find myself thinking that’s what it is, and it is more than “a sense of.” A rather important and large sense I’d have to say. Margins, certainly—margins on the page. That said, it seems to me that he was far more aware of the edges of consciousness, including his abiding belief in the permeable membranes of a numinous world. Me, I’m pretty much a materialist, and keenly drawn to the thingness and the thisness of life. A lot more joking and vernacular too. Also a lot more personal and emotional, or so it seems to me.
When I was working on Duncan I was excited by his arguments about writing as process, and of the value, necessity really, of being attendant upon the poem as it developed, virtually came into being, and of being minutely faithful to that record. He was extremely eloquent in writing about poetry and I have been taken by what he says in his H.D. Book. I still find those processual poetics appealing and at times will work out of them. But I’ve come more and more to write out of an interest in structuralism and the madeness of texts, which at times is overtly or ostentiously shown. I drew heavily upon Jonathan Culler’s arguments about conventions in writing, which was really useful in teaching students how to read more perceptively. Making choices before writing, while composing, after drafting—those moves have become more common and more knowing for me over the years. I’m after, often, a quality of moving on quickly, adroitly, or, when slowed, a branching, sometimes surprising and dislocating, within the tone and rhythms the lines are carrying. Yet I’m thinking of the poem as a series of codings—complex, variable, missed, often intuitive, even “unintended”—if that makes any sense?
One of my favorite anecdotes about the process of putting a book together is in the introduction of your book, Bloody Jack. Your colleagues, Robert Kroetsch and David Arnason (or was it Birk Sproxton?) kept encouraging you to put in more narrative about the Canadian outlaw, Jack Krafchenko, and for each time they put in something narrative you had written , you would sneak in and take it out. I love that story for its great play around the act of creating a book. The book itself is so playful, elusive and multiply-voiced, and to find out that it was made in the same spirit is another part of its power and delight. (Of course, maybe this story is just a story!?) Can you talk a bit about the collegial influences you’ve had over the years? How has your work with prairie writers like Kroetsch, Arnason, and the late Sproxton, to name a few, influenced you? Can you talk a little bit about the impact writing communities—however you define that—have had on your work?
Yes, their friendship and their examples have had an enormous influence on me. The three you list all came from the prairies—Kroetsch off a farm near a small agricultural town in Alberta, Arnason from a fishing village (yes!) on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, and Sproxton from a mining town in the Precambrian Shield of northern Manitoba. I came from a farm and then a town in southeastern Saskatchewan. So among us we had the three Prairie Provinces covered, you might say. Kroetsch was the leading example for all of us. He was older and already renowned when he first came to Manitoba, and his work continued to inspire us. The thing about Kroetsch is: he was always down-to-earth and enormously generous, so we all felt we could bask in his work and feel emboldened in his support. But for me probably the most crucial figure was David Arnason. When I arrived in Winnipeg I came as a specialist in American literature. Arnason, with his office next door, and his larger-than-life personality, was teaching Canadian literature, about which I was greatly curious, but also deeply ignorant. Students were pouring into Arnason’s classes. He was one of the founding editors with The Journal of Canadian Fiction; he regaled us with stories, happily offered advice about Canadian writing, encouraged every one to enter. We started a literary press (Turnstone), encouraged by him. He got almost every one of those who were kicking around St. John’s into teaching Canadian literature. Everyone can write, he would say. Just do it. And it was overwhelmingly because of him that I became immersed in the reading and teaching of Can lit. And then the writing too. Birk wasn’t here as long as the others, but he invariably dipped into that life and went on at Red Deer to work magic with his quiet mischief. He spent decades mapping and dreaming the northern prairies and when he died left behind an enormous stash of notes and drafts for a book he was working on, a search for the early geologist and cartographer, J.B. Tyrrell. There were others, too (Ken Hughes, Dorothy Livesay, Robert Enright, Wayne Tefs; and a slew of writers-in-residence such as Andy Suknaski), but those three would have been those who most influenced my poetry.
Those two short pieces, by the way, the ones that in the second edition of Bloody Jack enter anonymous advice and intervention, actually came from what I remember Kroetsch and Arnason saying to me when, years earlier, I was working on the first version of the book. Kroetsch is urging me to tell the story of what happened to Krafchenko, and Arnason is laying claim to the manuscript, saying it’s high time to confiscate it and bring it to the publisher. I wrote many friends into Bloody Jack and their names and little bits of their lives play across the text. I loved that inclusion.
This leads me to want to ask you about the influences of academia on your work. You started writing poems after you were a college professor and so I wonder how that professional landscape has shaped the writing? Did that influence come primarily out of the other writers you are/were working with and around? Or has the act of teaching and your students been a generative force? I also wonder if academia, with its ceremony and institutional boundaries, has been a kind of energy towards or even a dissonance to your poetics?
There must have been a dozen causes. Most immediately was the experience of editing for Turnstone in its first few years. After I’d worked on a couple of manuscripts I began to think: hell, I can do this. And I started writing. The thing is I’d spent many years developing the wherewithal in the reading and teaching and critical writing I’d been doing. It’s long seemed to me, and I often argue, that if you are a really good reader of literary texts, you are that close to being a writer. I’m not talking about interpretive criticism exactly (though I wouldn’t rule that out), and even less am I talking about contextualizing criticism. I am thinking about the kind of reading that pays careful and painstaking attention to the words on the page—hearing their sounds and rhythms, knowing or finding their usage, their gluings together, pullings apart; respecting their distribution and weight; seeking their poetics; engaging a poem among other poems; on and on. This is what I’m talking about. And it seems to me that really good readers do do something like this. And so the division that some poets like to observe—we creative folks versus those stale academics—is not one I favour.
On the other hand, academics can and, alas, more than occasionally do, act in reactionary and disallowing ways. It’s terribly disappointing when those who profess to be students of literature simply brush aside what they might choose to name as merely local or merely faddish or . . . . One can fill in the blanks, the terms of slight and abuse are all too familiar. Certainly there was limited sympathy within the English Department at the University of Manitoba for the fledgling magazines and presses and manuscripts that were beginning to emerge in the mid- to late- seventies. The head of the English department, when he learned that Turnstone Press was going to publish Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue, said if Turnstone publishes that manuscript I’ll eat it. He also ridiculed the observation that one could assemble a different set of texts than those listed for a new course in prairie writing. Because there are so many, he said derisively. On the other hand that same head annually recognized Arnason and me in merit cases and, years later, he told Arnason that the Can lit and creative writing folks were the heart of the department. Other heads were more openly supportive. In the meantime there was an intermittent murmur of scorn and mockery from the Imperial Centre where the Department office and most of our colleagues were housed, though I came to realize that, as I once mentioned to you, those responses were probably provoked a bit by fear and exacerbated by a little envy.
Fortunately these rear-guard actions began to fade away and there has been little of this behaviour for years now. What may not have improved as much is the value placed upon “creative” works. They certainly are accorded recognition but it seems to me that they never receive quite the respect granted more traditional acts of scholarship.
You have said in a previous interview that you continue to write poems about “musings and yearnings and loneliness” for which you attribute to listening to Country music as a child—“Hurtin’ songs,” as you call it. Given your Post-Modern forms, I would imagine that this concern for poems might be in conflict. Can you talk about how you make sense of or bring this past into your present (Post-Modern) voice? It strikes me as being what writers who have been writing over a span of years have to contend with: Bringing a past world into the present in a way that exceeds time. How do you navigate that past-ness and bring it into your current concerns?
Right. I’ve touched on this point a bit earlier, but I could add a bit more. I’ve identified a couple of passages I’ll likely use in epigraph to a book some time soon. The first is from Northrop Frye, who says there are “two central themes in Canadian poetry: one a primarily comic theme of satire and exuberance, the other a primarily tragic theme of loneliness and terror.” I’ve long been struck by that statement, partly because it speaks in ways to what I am doing. And one from Catherine Belsey who writes in a book called Desire: “Itself a metonym, a displacement of the want-to-be, desire is unable to name itself: it speaks only in substitutions, in figures, without truly knowing what it says. [. . .] What is specific to postmodern writing is that it foregrounds the citationality of desire, affirms it, puts it on display. [. . .] draws attention to the loquacity, the excess of textuality.” Kroetsch has, in the past at least, claimed you can’t write love poetry in a postmodern world. I don’t believe a word of it. The writing will take on new quirks but it will be there. At least that’s what I’m claiming, and I hope to hell I’m right, since I’ve done an awful lot of this writing. The thing is desire doesn’t disappear in a postmodern age. Nor does loneliness, nor wish, nor love, nor loss, nor any emotion that people have felt. The particular forms and degrees those feelings take on will of course be culturally attenuated. It’s the challenge of a postmodern poet to find a way to write them. It strikes me that one way or another it will be done, or has been done, or is being done. The way you articulate the problem is useful, I think—how to bring the past into the present in ways that are not simple-minded or sentimental in the worst way.
I would like to talk about play in your work. I don’t know any poet that works with puns as fluently as you do. Beyond that, you play the page with words and lines; you play with voices and personas. In Diane Ackerman’s book, Deep Play, she says: “the world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. Shenanigans are allowed, strategies can be tried, selves can be revised…. It is its own goal, which it reaches in a richly satisfying way” (6). Can you talk about this drive in your work to do all of these things? How does your playfulness, your jokes, your tricks play along with or against the prairie culture? How have things like the hardships and isolation of farming, the “hurtin” of Country music and the Scots-Irish Presbyterianism with its base in Calvinism and the accompanying severity brought out the player, the poet as joker, the trickster in you?
I absolutely love Ackerman’s statement. One part that emerges with special force for me is where she says that “selves can be revised.” Or tried on, or borrowed, or assumed, or adapted. Or else. This is where a kind of infantilism (of which I am undoubtedly guilty) can enter postmodernism. As you say, I am seriously taken with the world of nonsense and what-if-ness and just-supposings. Some will complain of self-indulgence and lack of control. But what is behind those terms? What do their users suppose? Is there not a grim kind of Calvinism at work, the reality principle run amok? What is it so emphatically, so righteously, so confidently, to spurn sporadic acts of play and pleasure? I have written a long essay about the war on nonsense, making light of Queen Victoria’s legendary put-down, “We are not amused.” So, alongside my stress on craft and care, I also believe passionately in release, taking chances, letting ‘er rip. I have no idea why I would; I mean what in my background would lead me to such things. My mother was a joker, increasingly as she got older. Does this have anything to do with it? But yes, I love verbal play, find it irresistible. And take great joy in it too, may god forgive me. Reading Kroetsch as I have, so intensely, for many years may have had something to do with this, his wonderful rambunctious Johnny Backstrom, say. Arnason has been a wonderful and comical narrator. Various and vaguely Freudian arguments have probably had their say too. I love appeals to the release of energies, libidinal eruptions, transgressions in dream and passion. The 1960s are there somewhere too. Bakhtin, his carnival. And the English Romantics—not very funny on the whole, but susceptible, certainly in Blake’s case, to readings of radical release. Chaucer. I love Chaucer and was more than a little pleased when one of your colleagues said she found my work Chaucerian. A whole lot of permissions through friends and reading? Yet, as you say, there has been a Puritanism deeply imbedded in the prairie past that has not been greatly amused with fooling around.