Sunday May 26

ButlerJenna Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980. She is the author of three trade books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), and Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), in addition to ten short collections with small presses in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Her work received the 2010 Canadian Authors Association Exporting Alberta Award. Butler teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Grant MacEwan University in Alberta during the school year. In the summer, she and her husband live with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in Canada's north country. Visit her web site here.


Jenna, the poems featured here can be said to be nature lyrics and so follow in a Romantic tradition that comes to us, perhaps, most strongly through Wordsworth and his theory that poetry resulted from the "spontaneous overflow" of emotions. "Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher," he said. That you and your husband spend the summer on a small organic farm in Alberta's north country certainly might account for the subject matter, but can you speak to your work's relationship to the long tradition of nature lyrics in English?

I circle around the concepts of lyric/anti-lyric (to use a term from Canadian poet Douglas Barbour) in all my writing. In his essay "Lyric/Anti-Lyric - Some Notes About a Concept," Barbour talks about two specific sorts of poems that he feels defy the lyric tradition: serial poems and "certain short poems which deliberately flout high lyric conventions yet have their own, wild or atonal, music." I'm constantly engaging with, dipping into, pushing against lyric conventions in my writing. There's something about living on the land that gives you those moments when you see the same beauty that Wordsworth wrote about; conversely, there are many moments when life is just long hard work, like digging out the quarter-mile driveway in -35C after a snowstorm, and there's nothing you can do as a poet to beautify it. It's breathless and it punches holes in everything.

I find my work both stemming from and fighting against lyric tradition, especially in regard to the speaking voice in the poems. I'll often filter my work through another viewpoint; it's my perception, but it's spoken through someone else, or the land, or to someone else without referencing any particular "I" or "you." The poems in Seldom Seen Road are, in many ways, some of the most personal I've written, as they engage with my own experience of fitting into a landscape wherein the existing stories and histories are already very present, very strong. But much of my other work (in shorter collections particularly, such as Spindle: Ghazals) removes this "I" altogether and pushes against the lyric by introducing spaces in the text, very definite lacunae, within which silence and the absence of the speaker act as text themselves. The space as speaking-place.

So perhaps it's more the particular project you catch me in that has me involved with the lyric to a greater or lesser degree, but all of my work is in some way in dialogue with it.

In an interview you did last April, you revealed your interest in the ghazal as a poetic form, and you attribute some of this interest in your love of Phyllis Webb's Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals. Can you talk about "Ghost Town Ghazal" a bit? The poem certainly does not conform to our expectations of the ghazal as it comes to us via its Persian roots.

No, "Ghost Town Ghazal" is very much what's been termed the "englished" version of the Persian ghazal: it lacks a traditional rhyme or meter, it avoids reference to wine/women/song and the search for the Immortal Beloved or the divine, and it does not overtly reference the poet in the final lines. It is located in a North American landscape, but it still uses the larger world to represent the emotions, that inner/outer duality. It's still largely about what's felt, instead of the expected narrative we look for in so many Western forms. Canadian poet Phyllis Webb writes quite a bit about the "anti ghazal," and I think it's the lack of complete narrative that draws me to the (altered) form. The reader is asked to animate the spaces; those pauses become places for thought and meaning-making instead of resting. The poem is very active and alive in a completely unexpected kind of way. It hinges on emotion, and so much goes unsaid; there's a lot (not) there to frustrate the story you expect to be told.

On your web site, you offer a quote from George Szirtes, "Trust your images more than you trust your knowledge, more than you trust your world." Can you talk about how you apply this thought to your own aesthetic understanding of what a poem should do?

For me, this speaks partly to the desire to avoid just "being clever" in poetry for the sake of one-upping the reader (perhaps that's part of the reason so many people dislike poetry?). So often, poetry really boils down to the experience, often the image, that was witnessed and that sparked the need to capture it, to set it down in words somehow so that others could also connect to it and recognize themselves in it. I frequently find myself coming back to bare images, in sparse and pared-down language, to capture the emotions I want to evoke in the reader, whether it's the buried weight of history inherent in an abandoned farmstead, or the five broken pickaxes lying beside the small grave hacked clear in blue prairie clay. There's a huge heft of story present in one of the stones from a tipi ring when it rests in your hand. I come back to images like those stones, the inherent weight of story within them.

We met, recently, at a poetry conference in western Virginia, more than a bit off your regular beaten paths. That conference featured an array of poets—ranging from academic "literary" poets to community poets to student-poets at the small liberal arts college, Bridgewater University. This might be an impossible question to answer, but as one who has experience with these same sorts of writers, those whose engagement with poetry is often very different, in Canada, can you offer any observations about the overall poetry scene in Canada as it might be compared to that in the United States?

That's a tough one! But from what I experienced at Bridgewater, there's the same burgeoning spoken word and slam scene, and that same deep interest in sound poetry and poetry as art. Writers on both sides of the border continue to nudge words, seeing where else they can go—either to the roots of sound, or off the page entirely into something more like conceptual art. I met students who were shifting from page to performance poetry, and those who were intent on fine-tuning their page poetry so that both written and spoken versions of the same poem had equal affect; they were writing both as careful wordsmiths and as intent listeners. I met professional writers and teachers bridging a vast variety of forms, all these worlds. I'd say we're similar on both sides of the border, but I'd love to see us become more familiar with each other. I went home from Bridgewater with a host of names of new (to me) poets I wanted to read, and others whom I'd just met, whose upcoming work I am hugely excited for.

Your relationship to the lyric poem seems more in line, as I see it, with poets like Louise Gluck or Carol Frost than it does with period-style "experimental" or "elliptical" lyric endeavors. How do you feel about current manifestations of the lyric, and who are the lyric poets that have been most influential in your own aesthetic decisions?

I try to dodge/mess with a few of the (can we say more expected?) traits of elliptical lyric. Although I do create a semi-formed "I" who's speaking here, there's no definite character present, and the "I" shifts to "me," to "you"...until it leaves the reader wondering whether it's really important anymore who this character is, or if it's slid sideways somehow into all of us. There's a story in many of these poems, but it's offered only as completely as it can be, bearing in mind these are stories culled from a landscape of fragments, and a lot is unknown or forgotten.

I wonder if the current manifestations of the lyric aren't lyric in dialogue with itself, in many cases. I think of Denise Riley, a British poet I read frequently and deeply admire, interrogating what the self is within the lyric constraints. It's sort of here are the rules and here's what I need to say/want to explore, and I'm seeing how far the rules will contain this exploration. I read Canadian poet Douglas Barbour a lot, too, and he's always buzzing along this lyric/anti-lyric boundary, just pushing language enough to see it stretch, to hear it sing. His Breath Ghazals are something to behold, using the actual breath sounds of the body itself as those lacunae in the poems. In the States, I read Sheila E. Murphy for this same buzz. Back in Canada again, Phyllis Webb, of course, and those who are writing anti-ghazals with that same power: Di Brandt, Andy Weaver, and Catherine Owen, among others. The poets who interest me most are always those who are breaking open lyric convention to spark dialogue, to push language; they're doing it in an informed manner, and with a particular intent, and the result can be stunning.


Ghost Town Ghazal

snow whimpers in the lees       air smelling
of spring        furrows greening

slivers of bottleglass        fragmented slough ice
willow glyph against sky

in the abandoned farm garden
a penumbra of red tulips

barn swallows know the heft of leaving
doorway linteled with light

what falls & how
the far horizon          this rain

Vigil (Estevan, Saskatchewan)

what must be watched for

blind feeder roots on
the geraniums in the cellar
       this more than anything
       on winter's outward crawl

first parsnips       the thin
red haze of duststorm
wildfire       cottonwoods
weighted down with orioles

& the way
light hunkers over the old thresher
rusting into earth
out on the east quarter
       this blue & that
       viridian night arc of sky

hawks that follow
the combine swath &
spindles of crows in
unrelieved black

baler faltering to silence
on the back forty
       how panic thrums like wings

Called Back
(In Memoriam, G. Johnson)

they left the town of Dorothy in the 30s
        tailspin of the Dustbowl
        farm sunk under rabbitbrush
hitched farther west

successive babies
slung precariously at her back they drove
cattle worked the threshing crews
retired to a northern city

                more dark water than
                they'd ever seen         & thinlimbed pines
& now
eighty-five         dodging Alzheimer's
he brings her south again
to finish where he started

she scours the porch
at the seniors' residence
     thinks forty years of northern spruce
     slimwillow loon-call

nothing to fasten on here but
claretcup paintbrush
sunbruised petals she spots & loves hard

—The greatest beauty is to be alive, forgetting nothing,
although remembrance hurts like a foolish act, is a foolish act.

John Newlove

nights closing on themselves already
this north country
burnishing its bones one against the other
August slinks her limber spine
protests aspen on the turn
haptic shingling of frost on birch

in the muskeg spruce
we scout snare points      memorize
the fall of light and timber
plan returns in snow
to stretch steel jaws
pound anchor chains

when you taught me
about killing I learned
how little keeps us
       how to bleed out in the bush
       and walk through fiercely
       as though unshaken

something in us
wound with the season
summer's hollowing cheeks the snap
of knucklebones

gather me up and cast

                     winter oracle