News: A short interview with Barry McKinnon - #2

2013-01-20 21:28:PM ago by jen.spruit

For Part #1 of rob mclennan's interview with Barry McKinnon, please click here.

rm: What is it about the form of the long poem that still appeals after all these years?
BM:This is a Note I wrote for Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology, Coach House Press, 1991:
In the spring of 1970 while revising a short, unfinished poem, I sensed that the subject was too large for the kind of lyric I was in the habit of writing. The urgency, impulse and push of its untold story kept me writing steadily for the next three weeks. The route this little fragment opened seemed to say: you can sum up your life to this point if you keep at it. Yet, I was afraid that this emerging long poem with its complex set of elements and conditions (fragments, images, ideas, and memories based on a series of my grandfather’s photographs and stories about his life at the turn of the 20th century) – would fail and end nowhere. The pleasure of the writing, however, was to be in a poem with such a large context of space and time – to be in a form that, paradoxically, gave me new energy and confidence. I didn't know what I was doing but I was doing it. The result was the book-length poem, I Wanted to Say Something.
Since then I've been writing the long poem /serial sequence, a form that gives me the necessary range in which to articulate the poem's central truth from various and variable angles and perspectives. I would like to add that during a conversation with Robert Kroetsch some years ago – always a taciturn experience until the beer kicked in – I asked, if it took a long time to write a poem that is also relatively short in length, does the temporal measure qualify it as “a long poem”? I can’t remember if Bob answered but do remember his slight smile as some kind of agreement. My new work “Into the Blind World” runs about six orseven pages for each of the two sections. Two years of reading Dante, thinking, and writing words on post-it-notes got me a total of thirteen pages. A long poem? 
A Note On Arrhythmia for Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology, Coach House, 2001:
When I started writing at the age of 16, I wrote fast, filling boxes with quickly scribbled lyrics dashed off with a sense of excitement and risk. I never knew what I was about to say or where the page was to take me. Now I’m 68 and the energy and pleasure of the writing process hasn’t really changed, but I wait much longer between poems. I’ve had to learn patience. Much writing and thinking for me is practice in preparation for the event when the poem arrives.
I’ve also learned to live with another paradox of its activity: The poem simultaneously identifies its writer to the world, but only comes into being when the writer, so to speak, is out of the way. What a strange occupation and process that requires obliteration of self at the same time that it reaffirms it. I think I knew this early on.
When I wrote the sequence, Arrhythmia, I literally had the sensation that my time on earth was shortly up. Arrhythmia is a condition of irregular heart beats (“glandular prosody” as I joke in the poem) that, in my case, created a great sense of anxiety that didn’t lift until I was diagnosed – thus the poem’s final line of release and relief: “knowing is paradise”. Poetry, in many ways, has saved my life, given it to me.
The composing principle for Arrhythmia, and I hope all of my work, was in line with W.C. William’s dictum that each poem must sum up the poet’s life to that point. I wrote Arrhythmia daily with the sense that if I had anything more to say I’d better get at it. If the word “subject” is still in the post-modern lexicon, I believe the poet’s subject is time – and that language discloses the actualities therein. Emotion is the poem’s fact.
I’ve always needed the accumulation of experience and a push from some unexpected angle (a political/ social/personal condition, the corporeal – a heart condition) to throw me into the process of the poem. A woman I met in Hamilton asked me at a reading if I wrote traumatic monologues. I had to agree, instantly, yes! and therefore with her slip on the word dramatic, created a close description of what I do.
As D.H. Lawrence writes: “We’ve got to live no matter how many skies have fallen.” I believe the poem helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy.

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