Any Semblance of Departure Will Be a Continuation: An Interview with Russell Thornton
Interview by Elena E. Johnson
Russell Thornton’s latest book, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Harbour, 2013), has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Raymond Souster Award and the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize. His previous books are The Fifth Window (Thistledown, 2000), A Tunisian Notebook (Seraphim, 2002), House Built of Rain (Harbour, 2003), which was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize and the ReLit Poetry Award, and The Human Shore (Harbour, 2006). His poems have appeared in a number of anthologies, among them Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry, Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012. He has a book coming out in the fall of 2014 called The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books). He lives in North Vancouver, B.C.
Three of Thornton’s poems were featured in EVENT 42.3.
EVENT: Your latest collection, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, is your fifth published book of poetry. Do you feel that this collection is a departure from, or a continuation of, the work in your previous books? How has your approach to writing poetry changed over time?
RT: These days, I wonder if a poet ever really departs all that much in his or her productions. Probably, for me, in the longer view, any semblance of a departure will be a continuation. It occurs to me that poets are always circling back to core obsessions, maybe adopting multiple styles over time, trying out different versions of their signatures—but always signing themselves up to an ineluctable self. I doubt my own basic approach to writing poetry has changed dramatically since I began putting out books. I still believe that poetry is where experience and language meet—as in some magic-lit circle. I still most often begin a poem with my senses and go from there. I still trust sound. I still blacken notebook pages thinking, I want to try to write a decent poem that speaks for me and what it is for me to be this strange, bewildering thing, a human being.
E: The natural world features prominently in your work and I find it interesting that mythology, dreams and biblical references also come up quite often. Do you find that the mythical often links directly to the ecological? And how about the dream world to the ecological and mythology to dream? I also wonder if, for you, images from dreams, mythology and the Bible tend to function as a link between humans and the natural world—a sort of entryway. On the other hand, if I take a look at the poem, “A Dove,” in EVENT 42.3, I see that perhaps it’s the other way around—the natural world can act as an entry point to the dreamlike or mythical (although the reference here is biblical):
A wild dove that has chosen the tree
outside our apartment for a home
flashes past with its lightning-white wings…
…There is no olive
leaf in its mouth. Still, the apartment
shelters us like an ark, our quarters
inside its listing hull.
… The grey deluge
held in the world will rise around us,
and the wild dove will arrive out of it
carrying our lives apart from us,
father, mother, and child will be sent
to and from us by what is in us,
wing the way from the tree to the tree.
RT: For me, mythology, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels are all part and parcel of the fundamental fact of story. The marvellous American poet Muriel Rukeyser said, “The world is made of stories, not atoms.” I think she was right. And for me, atoms and the worlds within atoms are stories. In the poem you mention, “A Dove,” yes, the natural world acts in a way that calls up in me a kind of waking dream—as it happens, a dream of a sacred story. The story calls up in turn a furthering of an experience of the natural world. I mean the “grey deluge” in this poem to refer to the waters of the flood in the story of Noah and the ark; I also mean it to refer to the reality of the natural or material world. Of course, it’s not saying anything new to assert that we see the world only to the extent that our limited senses allow us to see it, or that what we perceive as real is a process that involves our consciousness. The evidence, says current science, is that the external universe is a welter or swarm of matter/energy and that no subatomic particle exists in a definite place. What’s interesting for me is that human beings come out of that swarm, live and die in it, and that human consciousness is involved in it. The universe is participatory. Consciousness is, I believe, the energy of that participation, that relationship. I’d say that the universe is the stage on which the drama of the ongoing creation of reality is played out; human consciousness, especially in its faculty of imagination, is at once participant, celebrant, and witness.
In “A Dove,” the dove outside the window acts as a poetic agent, an airborne go-between winging from nature to myth and from myth to nature. The dove allows the speaker in the poem to access the Biblical story in which the storm arrives and ends. The flood recedes, divisions between sea and land appear again, sunlight breaks through clouds again, and so on. That story of the flood conjures in turn the “grey deluge” of the external universe—a universe in which human consciousness is at play, aware of the forms it imposes on infinite energies. The imagination dreams the grey deluge into stories. Maybe a human being or a creature such as a dove is a living story.
Of course, the dove is a symbol of love, among other things. I associate love with imagination—and see both love and imagination as fundamental in the functioning of the interrelations involved in the basic human group, the family (“family” meaning all the many configurations the word can refer to and by extension referring to the human family). So, in this particular poem, human consciousness, in love and imagination, in mutuality with the external world, is being allowed to help write a story that re-makes the world and itself at every instant. The tree in which the dove has its home is the locus—and where the natural world and dream myth are exchanged for one another and are indistinguishable. The tree arises nowhere but in that “grey deluge;” the wood for the ark comes from the tree. The dove flies nowhere but to and from that tree. It’s the tree of life.
E: Are there any particular writers or books influencing and inspiring your work at the moment?
And what about throughout your life—have there been any writers, artists, thinkers, etc. who’ve been an ongoing influence? I notice, for example, a poem dedicated to Irving Layton in Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain. And in your interview with Patrick Lane in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation, you mention, in addition to the Canadian, English, Irish and American poets that have influenced you, “… a whole array of marvelous poets from other parts of the world.” I would be interested to know who a few of those poets are.
RT: Irving Layton took me to poetry in a serious way when I first met him and then again when I became a student of his when I was 19 or 20. I suppose I was under his spell—as many people were—for a number of years. The power of his best poetry as well as his poetic personality held me. Also, I was grateful for the exceptionally kind fatherly or grandfatherly friendship he offered me—it helped me in personal matters. At this point, I’d say that I’m still magnetized by the language of his several masterpieces—the force of the rhythms, the verbal texture, colour, the near-Shakespearean, Keatsian sound and intensity of the figurative language; I’m still moved by the sense of gravity and transformation. If I had to cite ongoing English language poetic influences, aside from Shakespeare (Can I say Shakespeare influences me? I hope so), Blake, Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence, I’d list R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, Michael Longley, Don Domanski.
As for non-English-language poets, my personal pantheon includes Yehuda Amichai, Cesar Vallejo, Rilke, Lorca, Octavio Paz, Janos Pilinszky, Celan, Antonio Machado, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Cavafy, Sohrab Sepehry. What’s inspiring to me at the moment? Well, I’m definitely a devotee of Canadian poetry, from its origins to the present. I try to read as many of the books that appear in any given year as I can—and a number of them inevitably influence me. I admit, though, that my deepest inspiration comes from re-reading the poets I’ve just mentioned here.
E: Your young son and daughter appear a few times in the new book, and one of your poems in EVENT is called “Fatherhood.” I sense another ongoing—or emerging—theme. Have you found that being a parent has changed how you write, how you think about writing, and/or how you look at the world?
RT: I think probably my being a parent has deepened and clarified for me what I felt when I started getting serious about poetry in my early or mid-20s—that authentic poetry accesses, illuminates, and enacts the elemental strata of what we call a human being. As time has gone on, I’ve realized the truth of the statement that there’s nothing new under the sun—even though poetry is presented as such at increasingly more frequent intervals in a kind of blind imitation of advertisement culture. The “new,” supposedly evident and necessary in the poems of the new millennium, for example, most often reminds me of new shoe styles or versions of iPhones. I find I can’t be truly interested in much writing that doesn’t call up and engage with what I believe to be abiding living essences; for me, parenthood is in the category of the essences. You mention my poem, “Fatherhood.” I mean that poem to be a brief document about my trying to investigate and understand my experience as a father; in the metaphor-course of the poem I arrive at one of the oldest stories ever told, the myth of Prometheus—but its effects are as new as anything can be for me precisely because the human equation contained in it is of the order of what might be called ultimate fact. On the small scale of my own particular life, the myth frames, intensifies, and teaches me about my experience, and signs it up beyond me.
E: In Susan McCaslin’s article, “Facing the Environmental Crisis with Contemplative Attention: The Ecopoetics of Don McKay, Tim Lilburn, and Russell Thornton,” she includes an excerpt from a conversation you had with her. This passage in particular caught my attention:
Language is both a key and a lock when it comes to the poet and the natural world. Language came out of the natural world (out of the human organism) and although intricate systems of words helped produce self-consciousness in humans and divided humans from the natural world, words also, for my money, have magical properties, one of which is that they can help humans hypnotize themselves back into communion with the natural world.
Can you tell us a bit more about this? I’m especially curious about these magical properties of words and how they help humans to reconnect with the natural world. You also mention, “Of course, language is also a “crime” in that it walls us off from nature (and the division helps us to think we can commit atrocities against it).” What role does poetry play in all of this?
RT: The magical properties of words are right there and palpable in poetic devices: rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, and so on. They allow poetry to cast spells. The verse forms in traditional Welsh poetry, ancient Persian poetry—they quite quickly hypnotize the listener. There is also the visual appearance of letters—the whole world of meditating on Hebrew characters, for example, as a way to alter consciousness and become open to deep levels of inner experience. For me, Shakespeare’s great soliloquies in blank verse are, underneath their surface verbal layers, powerful ritual chants. I don’t have any doubt that the magical properties of words can, when worked with by a master poet, allow poetry to be a ceremonial, erotic activity that takes human beings into the depths of life. The truest poetry, for me, brings about an intense visceral alertness that is also a spiritual experience; it enables human beings to participate in the creative energies of the natural world.
Without getting into literary theory, and hopefully not slighting any proponent of this or that theory, I’d say that most people would probably agree that language is two-sided. It helps human beings perform feats of creative consciousness; it also sets them apart from the natural world, licences them to condescend to nature. As an imaginative involvement in language as opposed to a utilitarian exploitation of language, poetry plays a magical role in ushering people into their bodies and, at the same time, into the spiritual realm. It can put the rational analytical ego in abeyance and re-align human beings with nature. I’d say that the creative imagination is survival equipment—biological and spiritual. It appears that intelligence alone hasn’t stopped human beings from ruining the natural world. The language of great poetry enacts and embodies a vision that mends the rifts between human consciousness and nature—rifts that, paradoxically and tragically, humanity has set up with the aid of language that sustains the dominance of the ego.
What is the purpose of literature anyway? I ask myself: Doesn’t it define the ongoing human relationship with nature, the cosmos, the other-than-the-ego? To mention again the Prometheus myth: it’s one of the earliest stories, yet it functions as powerfully today as it must have in Greece in 500 B.C.: as a precise imaginative comment on human hubris. For me, it’s the same hubris that may allow the Canadian government to send immense tankers full of bitumen down the BC coast when Enbridge admits that there’s a 10% chance of tanker accidents that will result in spills. And bitumen, unlike oil and gas, cannot be cleaned up. The authentic poet, for me, puts him or herself on a cross, so to speak, at the juncture of different discourses, the rational and the imaginative, to illuminate the human predicament.
I think that the most valuable poetry gives us immeasurable experience on the imaginative level. When the language of rhythm and metaphor and symbol is uttered most intensely, it becomes a different language than that of analysis and duality. It becomes a language that, as D.H Lawrence said, “sounds upon the plasm direct.” It brings together the inner and outer, the spiritual and material. If I’m not mistaken, this is the hallmark of poetry. If it isn’t, it is for me anyway.
* * * *
Endnote: * The article “Facing the Environmental Crisis with Contemplative Attention: The Ecopoetics of Don McKay, Tim Lilburn, and Russell Thornton,” appears in Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature, edited by Trevor Carolan (University of the Fraser Valley Press/Anvil Press, 2010). The quotation is on pages 134-135. It was originally published in The University of the Fraser Valley Research Review, 3:1. The quotation appears on pages 77-7.
Elena E. Johnson’s poetry has been nominated for the CBC Literary Awards and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. Her work has appeared in literary journals across Canada, including The Fiddlehead, ARC and PRISM international. She proofreads and interviews for EVENT. Her first book of poetry will be published by Gaspereau Press in 2015.