25th Trillium Award

Elana Wolff Interviews Keith Garebian

 
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Keith Garebian

Keith Garebian is an award-winning poet and author whose most recent book, Moon on Wild Grasses (Guernica Editions), has been nominated for the 2013 Mississauga Arts Award. With illustrations by the author himself, this collection comprises haiku on a wide range of themes. Editor Elana Wolff interviews Keith, perhaps best known for his literary reviews and freelance writing, yet also hailed for his talent as a poet. Here, he reveals how he didn't always consider himself a poet, despite having a "poetic sensibility"; discusses his literary unfolding, including the crucial Children of Ararat, dedicated to his father who was orphaned at a young age by the Armenian genocide; and explains why he chose the tersest of forms for his new book.

Keith will be launching his new book at Kensington Market in Toronto on April 21st, 2013. Please view the event details here.
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Elana Wolff: You?ve said that poetry is not really your métier. Yet you?ve published four full collections of poems, one chapbook and you?re soon to be launching — with Guernica Editions — a collection of haiku featuring your own illustrations. That?s quite a poetic output for a writer who deems poetry outside the scope of his calling, no?

Keith Garebian: Although I was always a reader of poetry, I merely dabbled at it — as many a young man who fancies himself a romantic of some type. I never really thought of myself as a poet or would-be poet. I knew that to be a poet I?d need to dedicate myself totally to the genre, and I always preferred drama and fiction. I did memorize huge reams of poetry in secondary school — we all had to — especially Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, and I loved to recite in public. I went through a colonial system of education in the 1950s — one that led to the General Certificate of Education from Cambridge, so I didn?t have exposure to many modern poets. That came later — at university and after. Pound and Eliot were names we dropped to show off, but we didn?t really understand them. Because I was born in Bombay, one modern poet I did know was Dom Moraes, the genius from my school, St. Mary?s, who went to Oxford and won the Hawthornden Prize at 19! He became the model for all aspiring writers at my school, and we plagiarized some of his sentences from his eloquent essays.

I did, however, feel that I had a poetic sensibility. I responded to words — their shapes, sounds and radiations, yet I wrote only occasional poems — right up to 2000. By ?occasional? I mean poetic responses to specific events or art forms or themes. Some of these pieces did see publication in journals or anthologies, such as Quarry, Impulse, Inscape, The Antigonish Review, Aurora, Tributaries, Grain, and I was proud of them at the time, though I blush now at their technical naiveté or lack of sophistication. But, I?ve always been a passionate writer, and have never apologized for that. I?m passionate about fiction, non-fiction, drama, politics, art and world issues. Without passion, a writer is nothing much, except an exhibitionist of technique.

Which brings me to Irving Layton, whom I met in Montreal in the late 1970s, when I was writing book reviews for The Gazette and The Montreal Star. He loved one of my very critical reviews of a Véhicule poetry anthology. He admired my courage and shared my sentiments and sent me an appreciative letter, inviting me to coffee. I brought him a few of my poems and he was impressed enough to show one (about Patrick White?s novel Voss) to his ex-wife, Aviva (who was Australian), and urged me to write more poetry. ?But, Irving, I?m a critic, not a poet,? I protested. He thought I had talent. Flushed with pride at his comments, I quietly put them aside and continued to write book and theatre reviews, not really believing that I had world enough and time to devote myself seriously to poetry.

Flash forward to 2000 and the publication of my memoir Pain: Journeys Around My Parents — a book of meditations, epigrams, anecdotes, historical fact, literary commentary and prose poems. It received praise in some literary quarters and compliments from writer friends, some of whom were very moved by the prose poems. One said: ?I never knew you were a poet.? I responded: ?I never said I was.? But the comments made me wonder and prompted me to try my hand at more poetry, which led to my first collection, Reservoir of Ancestors in 2003 and then to my chapbook, Samson?s Hair and Other Satirical Fantasies in 2004. I subsequently produced Frida: Paint Me As A Volcano (2004), which had the distinction of receiving a simultaneous French translation by Arlette Franciere, who had admired my English original. Arlette, in fact, had been one of the admirers of my prose poems in Pain, as was her husband, Henry Beissel, who, curiously enough, had been a professor of mine (in Chaucer and his contemporaries) at Concordia (then Sir George Williams) when I was doing my MA. So, life is a curious sequence of coincidences, accidents and consequences.

I began to read deeply in modern poetry from 2000 onwards and to try my hand at composing some. I never made poetry my dominant genre, but did spend more time at it, and considering the volume of my non-fiction writing over the years — articles, reviews, interviews, books — I take pride in the fact that as a ?part-time poet? I?ve been able to produce several collections, with, I hope, a few more to come. But, again, I?m primarily an author of non-fiction. Of the 20 books I will have published by the end of 2013, five are poetry.

EW: You?ve mentioned authors who accompanied you through school — Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets? Were there any in particular who inspired you to a life of writing? Or did the impetus to write come more from life than literature?

KG: I always had the makings of a writer. I was at or near the top of my class in English and was one of only three students to gain a Distinction in English Language in the Cambridge exams. I published essays and reviews in my school?s magazines and periodicals. I wrote some poetry at university, especially at Queen?s where I obtained my PhD in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature in 1973, but it was only after I received my PhD that I began to write professionally. I was living in Montreal then, and I wrote book reviews, theatre reviews, scholarly articles and the occasional poem.

As mentioned, mine was a traditional schooling based on a colonial model — which wasn?t necessarily a bad thing. It gave us a breadth and even a certain depth that I find lacking in the contemporary Canadian system. We wrote essay-length answers in most subjects, and reading, for me, was a beloved activity — as it?s virtually impossible to become a good writer without a solid knowledge of better writers. I was definitely outside the mainstream of schoolboys because I read far beyond the curriculum. I always wanted to read the ?greats? in addition to contemporary popular fiction. I was eclectic very early: Shakespeare, Stevenson, Chesterton, Belloc, A.J. Cronin, Han Suyin, Pearl S. Buck, Thomas B. Costain, Nevil Shute, Tennessee Williams?

My favourite was always Shakespeare. In fact, I was nicknamed ?Shakespeare? by one of my peers at university because I was then in the process of reading all his plays, and I staged and acted in several excerpts. I loved his language, the colours and depths of his characters, the dramatic passions, the shapes of his plots. But it was probably the language that provoked my greatest response — and this probably accounts for my preference for the monologue in my poetry. I used Shakespeare in elocution contests, though elocution usually played second fiddle to my sense of the dramatic! The acting instinct was very strong — I was in just about every school play, and at university I formed a drama group, took part in the inter-university drama competition, ran drama clubs and workshops, and acted in small local amateur groups. Later I served as play reader for Toronto Free Theatre and Theatre Plus. And if you examine my poetry collections, you?ll note that they?re dominated by a role for voice and personae — as in Samson?s Hair, Frida, Blue and even Children of Ararat. Audiences at my poetry readings have often commented that I sound very much like an actor giving a performance, which I take as a compliment.

Where does my inspiration come from? Both life and literature, of course. And I?ll add painting, film, dance and theatre. Frida is very painterly; Blue is painterly and filmic; Children of Ararat has an entire section devoted to artistic creators of literature, film and painting. But the books are all provoked by my responses to life. I?m very empathetic to the marginalized, the oppressed, the exploited and the outcast. I?m affected by the horrible injustices of the present world, by the arrogance of superpowers and their satellites, and by the deniers of historical atrocity. I write to commemorate and interrogate literature and life, though I don?t think of a poet — to paraphrase Shelley?s famous claim — as necessarily being an unacknowledged legislator of the world. Language, imagery and mood: these are my predominant interests — all frequently unified, of course, by voice or persona.

EW: You were born in Bombay, your father is Armenian and your mother Anglo-Indian. You spoke of your colonial education in Bombay, your CGE from Cambridge, taking an MA at Concordia, PhD at Queen?s and your work as a literary and theatre critic. Like many Canadians, you hail from blended heritage and have migrated across the world to settle here in Toronto. Have you experienced dislocation or cultural displacement along the way? And if, as Salman Rushdie has said, ?Our lives teach us who we are,? what would you say your life has taught you to date about who you are?

KG: Allow me to quote sentences from my memoir Pain in order to create a field of discrete ideas and feelings in response to your important questions:
?I am a divided river beneath a bizarre zodiac.? (p.17)
?Even in Bombay, where I was born, I was never fully of a single place.? (p.18)
?Immigration can be an act of distancing or alienation.? (p.52)
?I was exogenous to Armenia, having grown up ignorant of my father?s origins and language; and I was embarrassed at the wastefulness of much Anglo-Indian life.? (p.55)
??the subtle leakage of one history into another, both extravagant in a subcontinent of exotic improbabilities.? (p.129)
?We were all colonized, we recognized this as such, and felt we were the better for it. There were worlds elsewhere, to which we were not denied entry. I had simply not yet found my place.? (p.71)
?From my reading shall you know me, for reading was a way for me to find my place.? (p.71)
?Someone called:
The foreigner!
Or was it just water whispering to shore
breaking through ice,
frozen suspicion, dotted by habitants
with white eyes
dry, mono toned
like waste paper and powdered snow
blowing together.? (p.81)

All this by way of saying that cultural dislocation and displacement are always parts of an immigrant?s biography, though they are sometimes reduced by a commonality of language or custom. I had English, the Bible (as mythology), Shakespeare and the Commonwealth as my commonalities with Canada. Nevertheless, despite having lived here from the age of 17, and never having returned to the land of my birth, I still often feel like a resident alien — to quote Clark Blaise?s memorable phrase. Blaise has a book with that phrase as its title, and he also once wrote: ?We are born to strangers we must learn to love, in a town or country we would not have chosen, into a tribe that defines and restricts our growth. We spend a lifetime overcoming the givens, only to return from the distant vantage point of fifty years when the parents are gone, to look back and say: this is what I am, something no larger, no freer than they made me.? So, the questions you?ve raised are metaphysical as well as cultural. However, I feel freer than my parents made me because I?ve given voice on the printed page to their histories and mine — something they were never able to do.

EW: Is there a sense, then, in which you see your poetic oeuvre as rooted in the material and concerns addressed in your 2000 memoir, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents, and your creative (non-critical) work on the whole as a personal project in socio-historical retrieval, as well as metaphysical inquiry — the nature of being in the world?

KG: When I write about my father, the Armenian genocide and my own identity, I?m certainly rooted in the concerns addressed in my 2000 memoir. But those are specific historic and autobiographical themes. Of course, there?s a wide overarching span that extends into metaphysics as well, because inherent in my investigation of such things as historical atrocity and denial, colonialism and its aftermaths, divided identities, cultural displacement and intergenerational conflicts, is the inevitable issue of the nature of being in the world we have known. If you look at world literature, you?ll see that what I?m speaking about are the very things (not all, but huge portions) that inform the works of such diverse writers as Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, Nadine Gordimer, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Tom Stoppard, Orhan Pamuk, Tony Kushner, Chinua Achebe, Timothy Mo, Peter Balakian, Derek Walcott, Eugenio Montale and Joseph Brodsky.

When you stand back from my books Pain and Children of Ararat, and look at my poetry collections Frida and Blue, you should get a clear sense of my preoccupations with issues of sexual and psychological freedom, the outsider, conventions of desire and art, and rebellion. And these themes also involve metaphysics. Many of these same themes will recur in the biography I?m currently writing of William Hutt, arguably Canada?s greatest stage actor. So, I guess, my books of poetry, memoir and biography are all unified by the overarching span here mentioned.

EW: Salman Rushdie has also said — he?s said many insightful things — that ?literature is situated on the frontier between self and the world,? and that it?s ?very much in the nature of modern life that the self is plural.? I see much in your body of poetry that indicates the ?frontier? phenomenon and also embraces the plurality of self. In Frida, you assume the voice of the artist, and one has the sense that many of your own passions are streamed through her "I." Of course you are telling her story and presenting her emotions, but you?ve chosen her — in no small part, perhaps — as vehicle. Thus, the emphatic declarations: ?My body is mad... My face is mad? (from ?Madness?) could very well come from a deep place within your own psyche. Her views and substitutions could be yours too: ?I refuse the collusion of victim, / fighting every moment with my heart? (from ?You Say You Could Live In My Hair?); ?I paint myself a mask that won?t cry? (from ?Earthquake?). Her assertions could coincide with your truths: ?Art is the telling of lies. And the exoneration of this? (from ?The Telling Of Lies?), and her sexual expression mirror your own: ?I touch a woman / and I am swimming out to sea? (from ?Holy in the Ecstasy?). The role-playing, I?m suggesting, allows you to wear masks of authenticity. Or, to use your words: ?Surfaces are deeper than they seem. / I paint what they show in creases and folds, / ... animals exposed...? (from ?Beginning?).

Like Frida, your collection Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems, is a kind of biography in verse. Even more than Frida, though, I would say, Jarman presents as a kindred spirit — cineaste, author, artist, sexual rebel and gay rights activist. Brash, bold, provocative to the end. In Blue, you address your subject, and his subjects, with almost promotional clarity — a factuality of style that?s intense, graphic, saltily honest: ?You desired a place in the world / with Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, Ariel, / fucking the boys who played their legends? (from ?A Lover?s Discourse?); ?Your blood dances to penis music / ... You make your cock a crucifix / ... Your Jesus is gay /... You decorate your film / with baroque buggery / and blasphemy, menacing / the establishment with bodies / itching to a frenzy...? (from ?Buggery and Blasphemy?); ?...the smooth-skinned, beardless lover / of Christ...refuses / quick rear-entry, but welcomes instead an orgasm / or arrows? ( from ?Sebastiane?). Jarman died young, at 52, of AIDS — after years, as you write, of indulging in drink, drugs and unprotected sex. Yet, in his refuge of art, you proclaim his ?Genius,? and in your closing poem, in metaphysical and theatrical assent, you assure him: ?A gold robe / awaits you with relics / for your comfort in an afterlife / under the old yew?s shadows? (from ?Envoi?).

In Children of Ararat, which seems to be a culmination and deepening of concerns and ideas explored in your memoir, Pain, and in your first collection of poems, Reservoir of Ancestors, you are at once political and personal. In fact, in Ararat, the political is the personal, and vice versa. This just might be your most impassioned work in an oeuvre of impassioned work — a book dedicated to the memory of your father, who was orphaned at a young age by the Armenian genocide, and marked — as the poems tell — by this early trauma till his death from cancer in 1995. It is a work that speaks to and for all those who did not and/or could not speak for themselves. A work of witness, a document and song of suffering from one who himself ?[has] not ascended Ararat? yet carries the burn of memories ?like yellow flames? (from ?Their Memories Burn?) — because ?everything is begging to be given a voice? (from ?Squalid?); because ?The brutality of facts cannot go into darkness silently? (from ?Dektets in Homage?). Ararat is a searing, penetrating, uncompromising work — at once up-close and personal — detailing uneasy relations between father and son, and also large and sweeping — raging against denial and historical revisionism in the sternest and broadest terms. It speaks to melancholy — the deep, pervasive sadness, or hüzün, of Orhan Pamuk; even more so, anger: ?Anger burns my face / flaming moral questions / where everything has fallen? (from ?Elegy for Armenia?). Yet one of the most lyrically evocative poems in the collection, an elegy for your paternal grandmother, is as tender as it is bitter: ?She was lost in your sobbing / ... dumped into a ravine, her face dissolving / in the crimson river?s current, her body a floating shadow amid cruising fish. // She had gone with the waters like flotsam. / And you wondered if she would / wind up somewhere clean, entwining / herself with flowers in the earth?s seasonal love? (from ?Flotsam?).

Clearly you?ve been haunted by the horrors that befell your father?s forebears, and you?ve heeded the voices and memories in your head. Have you said all you intend to say on these matters? Or is there more? A novel perhaps?

KG: I love your phrase ?masks of authenticity? because it brings into sharp focus the paradox of the mask. Usually, a mask is a means of disguise or masquerade. It?s meant to conceal the identity of the wearer rather than reveal, and the donning of the mask is an act of radical deception. When assuming a persona in writing, the writer is practicing a deception, and we do not need the post-modernists to point this out. But if the mask is adopted, or put in place in order to burrow into another identity, that, perhaps, closely parallels or expresses or explains or explores your own, then the strategy has an authenticity. When I assume Frida Kahlo?s voice, it?s not to say that I understand women. It?s merely to express my empathy with her because we both share an intuitive understanding of human passion in certain situations: love, jealousy, anger, spite, revenge, remorse, ardour, self-violation, etc. I am practicing the art of being private in public — on behalf of Frida and myself. This is a concept and phrase I?ve borrowed from the late, great William Hutt, who applied it to his own craft. So, yes, when I write about Frida or Jarman or my father or the Armenian genocidal victims or the Armenian artists struggling with the cross-generational, cross-cultural effects of trauma, I?m sharing my preoccupations, stresses, distresses, consolations, etc. with a reading public — but not simply in a didactic way. I try to be as artful as possible, without sacrificing my core passion.

The personal quotient varies from persona to persona. As you point out so astutely, there is more of myself in the Jarman book, and, most of all, in Children of Ararat, the most deeply personal book I?ve written, apart from Pain. If anyone wants to know who and what I am as a writer and person, these books of poetry and memoir would be the ones to turn to — and, perhaps, some of my theatre books, especially the forthcoming Hutt biography. You are also correct and wise to see that in Pain and Children of Ararat, the personal is political and vice versa. I had a quotation from Yeats very much at the back of my mind when composing both, so please allow me to quote from a short speech I delivered this year to my fellow Armenians at St. Mary?s Apostolic Church when I was honoured with an award for being an Armenian writer in Toronto who writes exclusively in English. It was a speech that summarized much of what I?m saying to you in this conversation, so I think it?s useful to enter into the record:

Being an Armenian who knows no Armenian and who writes only in English, I am an incarnate metaphor. In many ways, like my father and his people, I am uprooted, displaced, caught between radically different worlds, yet stubbornly remaining true to myself in a New World cultural mosaic. I have made my literary reputation mainly because of my theatre writing, but I am equally proud of the fact that through my books Pain and Children of Ararat, I involve myself in and with history, provoking people to react to what I write about my father and his people. I have inherited the obsession of a survivor. I bear witness to the Armenian genocide in order that the perpetrators and other deniers will be compelled to recognize, repent and make reparation — in other words, justify their humanity. I write to record what happened, as well as to free myself from it, though I know that I may well fail in the second regard. Is there a meaning to that genocide — a meaning that I have not found? And have I chosen or been chosen to testify? To echo Primo Levi: crimes against humanity are ineradicable and could return — indeed, are never absent from human experience. Life can be beautiful and human identity is multi-fold. Evil exists, and goodness too, and there is much in between. Perhaps there is no meaning in this, but it is true and must be known, and I strive to have it known by making prose of my quarrels with history and poetry of my quarrels with myself.

The final sentence is a direct echo of the Yeats line: ?We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry,? is from his essay ?Anima Hominis.?

Have I said all that I intend to say? Probably not, but what form or genre any future writing will take is hard to say. My books usually evolve spontaneously out of an image or idea or emotion or line. When I wrote Pain, I didn?t want to do the conventional memoir. I wanted to mix modes, even more than Ondaatje did in his fabulous Running in the Family. So if a prose poem happened, I allowed it to develop. If an epigram seemed right at a specific moment in the narrative, I used it. If an anecdote suggested itself, I used it. If I needed historical background, I resorted to historical texts and so on. I just wanted to see how far I could go in the writing, maintaining an autobiographical narrative while dipping into various literary modes. Similarly with Children of Ararat. I felt I needed documentary poems, reflective lyrics, elegy and ekphrastic poetry, but I divided the book into specific sections to coalesce around themes, with the whole fitting within a frame devoted to my father. Then I added an afterword about historical denial. Actually, I?d put it first in the original manuscript, which would have been an error, as my fine editor Mick Burrs knew, and Peter Balakian also pointed out, so I shifted it to the end of the book.

Will my quarrels with myself and history produce a novel? I don?t know at this stage. A writer needs the luxury of time and space in order to produce a novel, and my freelance work and paltry earnings as a freelancer severely reduce such luxuries.

EW: Well, given the constraints, you?ve been richly prolific. And looking at your oeuvre as a whole, there appears to be a pattern of unfolding. You?ve published two works on William Hutt, for example — the first a portrait, the second a study of masks and faces, and you?re presently in the final stages of producing a major biography of the stage actor, whom you?ve named ?arguably Canada?s greatest.? You?ve also said that anyone who wants to know who and what you are as a writer and person, should turn to the Hutt biography, or to your memoir and poetry, particularly Children of Ararat — which I also see as examples of deepening, unfolding and probing the boundaries of self, other, history, culture, story and telling. Clearly, you?re compelled to write, and your scope is not narrow. Your facility for narrative, characterization, and depiction of social, political and personal realities of place and period suggest to me that a novel would not be a stretch. Or maybe an antinovel — given your urge to subvert!

KG: Some people believe that a writer?s oeuvre is really all a single book — that is, a story that reveals him over an entire career, perhaps in several genres or titles, but all intersecting and uniting with his real identity as a person and artist. There?s probably some truth in this belief, though I don?t want to make it seem that a writer should fit into a mold or grid. One way of knowing about yourself and your own story is to look at others and their stories because you may discover something about your obsessions or previously non-articulated insights in the very process of writing — by the way a theme takes shape, or from a prevailing mood or form.

I?ve realized over the years that my poetry establishes me as a poet of melancholy, a poet of brooding — as evidenced in some of the poems in Reservoir of Ancestors and Frida, much of Blue, as well as Children of Ararat. Many readers have mentioned my ferocious anger in Children of Ararat, and that?s true, but the anger is really underscored by melancholy at the realization of inconceivable loss. I feel deeply for my father?s people and their huge loss. It?s the sort of loss that any group that has suffered massive atrocity understands in their bones. Loss through genocide can be excruciating pain — mental, psychological and metaphysical. I understand this intuitively, and because one-half of my roots go back to a specific tribe of victims of genocide, my feeling is deep. I have a poem entitled ?The Need for Precision,? in which I hold that there?s no precise inventory for loss or its consequent melancholy pain: ?how easy / to account for clay bowls, / for gall-nut, sugar and rice, / hemp cords and silk clothes. / The tally of torts worth gold. / But where is the precision / of headless bodies, of unmarked graves, / shreds of scarves hanging in walnut trees, / of apple-cheeked children / whose golden hair was carried/by winds to the mountains?? The first images come out of the history of Armenians as merchants, but the poignancy of the poem grows out of the picture of ?apple-cheeked children? with golden hair blown away from their bodies and carried, as it were, by ironic miracle to Ararat. The word ?golden? is a deliberate romanticization, echoing Paul Celan?s golden-haired Margarete in ?Death Fugue,? but it links back to golden innocence and purity of childhood — a childhood that was cut short, aborted, denied, and with an attempt by the killers to deny it, any memorialization.

There?s also melancholy in some of my production studies of classic Broadway musicals — though more as a theme than overriding mood: the melancholy of Mama Rose?s rejection by Gypsy; the melancholy of her failed relationship with Herbie, the one man who really loved her; and the melancholy behind the bitter struggle of Gypsy against her mother?s domination and the mores of her time. In the case of West Side Story, there is, of course, the tragic or sub-tragic ending, where Maria loses Tony and where there?s a mindless loss of young life and potential through racial gang warfare. In Cabaret, there?s the sad irony of Sally Bowles and of the grotesque growth of Nazism. In both cases in this great musical parable, there?s the palpable pathos of loss and a betrayal of our better instincts as human beings.

There?s melancholy inherent in my biographies of William Hutt as well: the sadness of a great man denied his due by parents and brother early in his life and career, the sad rift between him and his minister-brother, the pity of his war years when he experienced death before he really got to experience life, and the pain of many of his unhappy personal relationships with lovers. Moreover, many of Hutt?s best performances — even in comedy — have an undernote of melancholy. I think especially of his fool in King Lear who seemed destined for suicide despite the surface wit, his King Lear for Robin Phillips and later Richard Monette, his Gaev in The Cherry Orchard who was such a lost soul that even Hutt wondered how his life would unfold outside the play, his Feste in Twelfth Night, his Harry Raymond in The Stillborn Lover, the grieving Titus Andronicus, and, perhaps, most powerfully of all, his James Tyrone in Long Day?s Journey into Night.

So, I do see an unfolding — what a wonderfully insightful word that is, Elana. First of all, my books all spring from my genuine interests in other writers, theatre, art, film, history and politics. No one has ever forced me to write a book, and no one ever shall. I write because I feel I must. My literary studies of Hugh Hood and Leon Rooke were commissioned, but I wouldn?t have done them if I didn?t have a real respect and fondness for these writers — Hood because of his encyclopaedic intelligence and curiosity, the largeness of his conceptual vision and his experiment with emblematic fiction; Rooke because of his virtuosic manipulation of voice. These two writers are the comic zone of my writing — I use the word ?comic? in a broad generic sense — and although no one appreciates good comedy more than I do (see my chapbook Samson?s Hair), I seem to lean more naturally toward brooding meditativeness — as in my non-fiction Pain.

What I love about writing is the prospect of discovering myself through the act of exploring others. I remember William Hutt saying to me — when I was doing the 1988 biography — that he felt a lot of the book was really about me. He was probably right. Perhaps I was trying in a subconscious way to discover my own real relationship with my father, my society and its culture, my artistic promptings and my psychosexual self while telling his story. But the key word is ?probably,? because it was not a conscious thing.

Some people have found it difficult to pin me down as a writer because I have been so prolific across different genres of writing. My scope, as you suggest, is not narrow, and I do have a facility for characterization and a sense of place. But I always try to make each book different from the others. Whether this will lead to a novel or antinovel, I don?t know. My urge to subvert doesn?t require the long fiction form. I do that with biography itself because I believe that there hasn?t yet been a really good Canadian theatre biography. I?ve read all of them — at least all that are readable, and none satisfies me. There?s little or no understanding of writing in the moment, of bringing the stage alive in the writing, and of placing their subjects in a broad or international context. The popular ones are sentimental and shallow; the academic ones dry, tendentious and tedious. There aren?t any to rank with the best English or American theatre biographies of Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier or the Barrymores. My own first biography of Hutt had many good things in it, but it wasn?t the biography I?d hoped to write — for a number of reasons, one being the deliberate non-cooperation of many of his family and some of his so-called colleagues. There were areas of his life to which I wasn?t privy. Now if Robertson Davies had turned his hand to theatre biography, we might have seen a really great one, but so far only Christopher Plummer?s memoir, In Spite of Myself, is excellent on theatrical matters — vibrant, witty, expansive and vivid — though it sidesteps crucial parts of his autobiography. Moreover, it?s not a biography. I hope to break the pattern in my new Hutt biography, subverting the normal pattern in this country by digging deeper into my subject than has ever been done before.

EW: I find William Hutt?s 1988 comment to you very attentive. I do believe that our pulls toward the other — life and/or writing — are always, at least in part, a search for completion. The idea that the self requires the other in order to define itself is not new, and has been probed by many — including Edmund Husserl, who used it as the basis for his concept of intersubjectivity, and Emmanual Lévinas, who raised ethics over metaphysics in asserting the other as prior to the self. Perhaps Lévinas?s related idea of the ?infiniteness? of the other — that even when the other is murdered, the other remains, and is never negated — also pertains to some of your writing — particularly on the Armenian atrocity.

KG: Your question moves our conversation into highly ramified areas of philosophy that are outside my expertise, though I wish to respond to it with a very personal set of beliefs. Lévinas?s concept of the other appears to be posited on an acceptance of the Divine or transcendental source of Being. It claims that all philosophical thinking must begin in ethics, and this makes sense up to a point. It?s true that I exist in a world among alien entities that are ?other than? me. I can learn to try to control and manipulate these entities. But Lévinas goes further than this when he articulates a philosophy of transcendence based on an encounter with an infinite other. This is theology, and theology is primarily a matter of tautology. We define God by our own human desire for perfection without necessarily having proof of such perfection. Or to put it differently, the proof is merely conceptual — that is, created by our mind and not by experience. Lévinas contends that when a man truly approaches the other, he is uprooted from history, but where is the palpable evidence — unless it is in the lives of saints or seers or mystics, and if this is so, we are as close to hallucination or ecstatic fantasy.

I prefer to stay with history and the imagination, that both subsume concepts of the other. In history, especially the history of imperialism, the notion of the other is based on domination and subordination, what Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir call the master-slave dialectic. This is implicit even in colonial and imperial politics. For example, the West perpetuates the idea of the oriental based on the Manichean allegory: order, rationality, masculinity and goodness on the side of the West; chaos, irrationality, femininity and evil on the side of the other.

I know that I exist in a world in which the way we set the frame and context for everything is really based on our sense of ?ourselves? and the ?other.? I know, then, that ethical judgments come from examining my relationship with the other. I know, too, that when I create literature, I am working within broad concepts of the other, though in my case, I assent to roles for the subconscious, silence, anger, grief, etc. and the other of language — that is, what is referred to and what is left unsaid. For instance, in Frida, there are several dialectics of self and other: Frida, the victim against Diego, the manipulator and betrayer; capitalism against socialism; socio-cultural and political colonialism against personal independence; androgyny against machismo. In Blue, Derek Jarman is shown as a rebel against Thatcherism, establishment art, censorship, religion, sexual constraint. Children of Ararat sets me in opposition to deniers of history and to those who assist in the repression or extinction of memory. I see history, as Paul Eisenstein does, as an inevitable encounter with the traumatic. Hegel claimed that we are all creatures of trauma, subject to it and what we cannot master. There?s no automatic link between our efforts to remember the Holocaust, for instance, or the Armenian genocide and the prevention of future catastrophes of the same type. It?s fantasy to believe otherwise. The past repeats itself in history whether we remember it or not — in terrorist identity politics, the new anti-Semitism, the neo-Nazi movement, Israeli segregation politics, American manifest destiny or the New Order, or the new Turkish nationalism, which is really nothing more than old fascism in new clothing. I?m not suggesting that all of these references have the same value or weight, but I am suggesting that there?s no foolproof mechanism against recurrences of fascism or the practice of otherness as a necessary element of national identity.

I know that words are not necessarily our salvation because catastrophe cannot be prevented. Nature dominates man — in tsunamis, landslides, avalanches, typhoons, drought and wildfires. But man is always capable of evil, even believing that he can reinvent it. That?s why I have rejected scriptural fideism. We are all Jonah crying out to Yahweh from the belly of the Leviathan, and all we get back is deafening silence. That is why I have written in my poem ?Passage to Ararat? (reproduced in Pain): ?History is a colophon: / shipwrecked words stuffed in bottles / drifting get help soon / to no one.? That is why I have written of my father in Children of Ararat: ?Ash on his orphaned tongue / weight of the void // he stammered into stone, into silence / the nothingness of night // words speaking stones/stones speaking silence.? I wrote Children of Ararat in part as a deliberate rejection of Adorno, as a vehement attempt to resist the fantasy of fascism or atrocity. Of course, it is possible to write poetry after the Holocaust; it is just not possible to prevent another genocide, if man desires atrocity.

So, rather than saying that the other remains and is not negated, and meaning by this Levinas?s transcendental being, I would say that the other as evil is never negated because man is a being capable of relentless evil, of recurring delusions and malevolence. But he is also capable of goodness, and something in between good and evil, something that helps balance the two polarities. I face the other just as I face myself.

EW: Thank you for this candid reflection, Keith. I would only add that while Lévinas does stand minimally within the negative theological tradition (as established by Moses Maimonides), his notion of transcendence, as many have indicated, is unique. He defines transcendence in relation to worldly existence — as continuous presence — secular, though non-finite. His project was to interpret existence, transcendence (that is, continuous presence) and responsibility for the other in light of ethical meaning. He held that we don?t choose to be responsible, that responsibility is called forth in the very approach and gaze of the other; that a trace of the good is always present in being, and that it is the duty of humans to build a world where goodness prevails. Lévinas survived the Holocaust and his thought is to be understood as a response to the horror of evil. From your answer, however, it?s quite clear that you are closer in outlook to Primo Levi — indeed you quoted him in your award speech at St. Mary?s Apostolic Church — who survived Auschwitz, denied God, and deemed despairingly, not long before he plunged to his death in 1987, that it?s not possible to prevent another genocide, that the Shoah was a mere vaccine, not likely to last more than 50 years. The killing fields of Cambodia, which Levi lived to see, and the atrocities in Rwanda, which he didn?t, could definitely support the more pessimistic view.

And now, lest we sink too deeply into the waters of philosophy and the problem of evil, I?ll turn to another topic:

You are a freelance writer — regularly a contributor of literary and theatre reviews. Does Keith Garebian the writer of critiques and reviews wear a very different hat from Keith Garebian the writer of poetry?

KG: Yes, of course. A reviewer needs critical objectivity, a wide frame of reference and sensitivity to textures; a poet needs empathy, a wide frame of reference, sensitivity to textures, negative capability and sensuousness. However, I should qualify this: a good poet also needs critical objectivity — one has to know about technique, structure and closure. When I write book reviews, I try to enter into the spirit of the book, the spirit of the author, and only then stand back to come to grips with the overall purpose, quality and effect. A review is secondary creativity: it describes and evaluates someone else?s creation. The best reviews are, of course, artistic performances themselves, but most reviewers rarely achieve that level.

EW: Last year, film critic Rick Groen ?confessed,? in an article in The Globe and Mail (October 5, 2012), to writing three ?bad? reviews — of Titanic, Groundhog Day and Basquiat — that he would in retrospect ?take back? on grounds of ?gross misjudgement.? Have you ever written a review, or anything else, that you would now subject to mea culpa revision?

KG: I?ve sometimes erred in interpretation or not shown enough sensitivity to texture in a literary text, for instance, but I don?t believe I?ve had to take back any critical comment made in a review on the basis of ?gross misjudgement.? My instincts generally seem to be sound, and my judgements are based on dedication to discovering as much as I can about the subject under examination. I really try to keep an open mind as I approach a book, play, film, painting, etc. Sometimes I?ve regretted using strong language — that may have seemed like a personal attack — because I don?t ever really seek to wound another writer or artist. Creating art is never easy, and I respect any artist who makes a serious attempt. I?d much rather praise than denigrate — unless I feel very strongly that something is being passed off as good when it clearly isn?t. I only attack when I feel that the person is getting away with something terribly inauthentic or false. So, when I have the opportunity to request a book to review, I make my selection based on the expectation that I?ll probably like the book — because it?s by a writer I regard highly, or because the topic is interesting or challenging to me. Sometimes, of course, I?m disappointed, and then I have to be truthful.

EW: In terms of ?instincts? and ?judgements,? I find it interesting that you should be bringing out two such different books this season: your long-researched, avowedly very personal, 560-page biography of William Hutt, and a slim, elegant volume of haiku, including your own illustrations, with Guernica. There is indication of your interest in the "short form" — in the poem ?Queer Artist Haiku,? which appears in Blue. But in your new collection, Moon On Wild Grasses, you devote yourself to the brief, imagistic lyric in a fully sustained and quite faithful way. This marks a departure from your previous collections. Why haiku? And why now?

KG: Haiku is a simple but profound way of seeing and experiencing the world at specific moments. It?s a form that notices and cares for the small rather than the large: a dewdrop on a single leaf, faces on a subway, a man?s foot accidentally stepping on his dead wife?s comb. Haiku focuses on the ordinary, yet manages to make it extraordinary. Haiku shows the interrelationship of things, and thereby becomes an excellent vehicle for awakening awareness. No subject is really foreign to haiku: physical nature, silence, stillness, emotions, leisure, war, relationships, love, loss, death, memory, innocence, dreams, time. Reality is made vivid in every moment, and our eyes need to see as if we were children again. Haiku requires what some of its practitioners call ?the haiku mind,? which is to say a state of turning away from one?s self in order to surrender to a moment. There should be no didactic filters between the haiku poet and the haiku subject.

Each of my poetry books to date has been marked by a strong focus on specific moments: Frida?s near-fatal accident as a teenager, her laments or her ecstasies; Jarman?s identification with Sebastiane or Caravaggio, or the diagnosis of his blindness or his deathbed moment; my father?s murderous rage, the loss of his mother, a painting by Gorky or a litany by Saroyan. In adopting various personae — of Frida or Jarman or the Armenian as other — I?ve practised forms of identification or empathy, turning away in certain ways from my own self to enter into the psyche of others. The monologue form gives me the scope to enlarge such identification — to take on the voice of someone else, to surrender to that voice or a specific moment of being.

This dynamic has a direct link to my biography of William Hutt because Hutt had no equal as a great actor who surrendered to the moment, who could see the world of the play or a character as if it was being seen for the first time. The best acting puts up no barriers between the actor and his role. At his best, Hutt epitomized this. His greatest acting had a remarkable simplicity, and its power came from his ability to find the most extraordinary things in the most ordinary ones, as in his utterances of Lear?s ?Never, never, never, never? or of Beckett?s ?Let?s go.? So, as I write this massive biography, I pay attention to specific moments in Hutt?s life and career to illuminate him. I don?t impose a shape on his life and career, but I hope to find one. Because it?s a biography and not haiku, I do use filters that have developed out of my own personal cultural and psychosexual background. But I don?t seek to censor or distort the material. There?s more subjectivity in biographical writing than in the haiku, and therefore the genre allows for greater experimentation than the terse form of the haiku, but in both cases, I seek awakenings for myself and for the reader.

EW: I saw William Hutt in The Tempest in 2005 — his final season at Stratford. It was an outstanding production and Hutt as Prospero owned the role. My husband and I both remember seeing him years prior as well — as Herne the hunter — in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, I believe. He came on stage, antlers mounted on his head, and just stood there. His demeanor "spoke" both funny and sad. It was a "simultaneous" moment and the audience roared. That image remained with us — we were both struck by Hutt?s extraordinary ability to express a rainbow of emotion without speaking a word.

As for haiku, I would agree — there?s much less room for ?subjectivity? and ?experimentation? in the ?terse form? than in biography. But it seems you didn?t turn to haiku for experimentation. Traditionally, haiku demands constraint as much as surrender — a strict syllabic count of 5-7-5 in three lines, together with ?perceptual release,? so that the space between poet and subject becomes transparent, as Basho would have it. In Moon On Wild Grasses, you remain faithful to both traditional form and mode. Formal stricture was clearly important to you, or you would have abandoned it. And as you relate in your preface, your subjects ?encompass nature, empirical experience, the self, love, death, and grief? — also traditional in scope. You do inject an element of vicariousness, and some of the haiku are rooted in reading rather than direct experience. Here and there, there?s also a link to your earlier collections. The following haiku, for example, could very well fit in Frida or even Blue:

To paint you is mad —

lava bleeds into my mouth,

tongue on fire, all red

But on the whole, I see a very different project in your fifth full collection — a work more uniformly lyrical, quite apolitical, mindful of distant times and places, reverent more than subversive:

Samurai archer

bends his long black bow so tight

his teachers quiver

*

Raw-kneed faithful climb
the stone steps worn with worship
to touch Buddha?s feet

For the first time, you also showcase your own flowing illustrations in this work — including the lovely colour cover images. In her study, The Heart of Haiku, American poet Jane Hirshfield reports that Basho began writing haiku as pastime — ?amusing himself as a young man by trying something?of the moment.? Likewise, as you share in your preface, your illustrations date back to the youth of your school days. So in the art, as well as in the poetry, I sense with this volume that you?re dipping back as you step forward — perhaps with a cloak of nostalgia? In your plain-spoken closing poem, you evoke a world, juxtaposing its differences. You don?t impose emotion, yet the tone, to me, is bittersweet:

While he picks wild fruit
his wife hoes over dark rock.
At home their son reads

KG: I don?t believe in experimentation for the sake of experimentation, except when I?m bored or just playful. So, yes, my haiku poems follow the traditional syllabic form, and yet if you look closely at some of them, you?ll note the deployment of what has been called ?American sentences,? such as were used by Allen Ginsberg. I wasn?t really conscious of Ginsberg at the time I wrote them, nor was I even aware of the term ?American sentences.? But I knew I wanted to write haiku that could be uttered in a single breath as an unbroken sentence — as in ?A thin snake slithers / under a damp, mottled log / till my shadow goes? or ?A floppy mushroom / sprouts alone between old cracks / of a stone staircase.? Despite the clausal and phrasal structure, there should be no caesura in any of these haiku, except with the final word. In fact, there?s scarcely a missed beat in the utterance.

My poetry often grows out of reading other poets or writers. Their genius or craft inspires my writing, though I have my own voice. Because I?m eclectic in my reading, my poetry does not fall into a grid. All my poetry collections are distinct from one another, but all are charged with feeling. I?m not a cold writer, a purely technical writer or a cerebral poet. If a poem does not make an emotional connection, I generally don?t find it terribly interesting or memorable. This is not to say that I demean ideas. Of course not, but if it comes to choosing between, let us say, the pristine craft of an A.J.M. Smith or the sometimes hot and messy Irving Layton, I know where my preference lies.

Though I often invoke the ?oldies,? such as Layton, Cohen, Walcott, Rich and Neruda, I don?t really think of myself as nostalgic. I don?t yearn for days gone by. However, I do value certain things or experiences from the past and revisit them in my writing. All writers are memoirists in a way and need to be. A biographer certainly is, and a poet often has ideas and images from the past revolving in the mind. In this sense, I suppose you are correct to feel that there is a stepping back and a going forward in my writing. I don?t know if I would go so far as to say that I wear a ?cloak of nostalgia,? because that makes nostalgia a garment.

You mention the illustrations or drawings I?ve used from my schooldays, but in that period I wasn?t writing haiku. I simply like the illustrations because they reveal a steady hand, a surer sense of line than I may have today, and because they fit the haiku. They were done without any haiku in mind. I didn?t start writing haiku till I taught the form to school students — back in 1964. But my haiku then were meant to demonstrate the simplicity of the form. I only started producing haiku seriously and voluminously five or six years ago — as a break from my earlier poetry. I still wanted and valued lyricism, but I wanted to move out of the monologue form of Frida, the lyrical modes I used in Blue and the surcharged passion of Children of Ararat, and try my hand at representing the vividness of reality in the most concise way possible and without forcing emotion. I know that sometimes my passion gets the better of me, but the haiku form necessitates tight discipline, so it?s been helpful in my being able to capture snapshot moments of being.

The wonderful thing of good haiku is its suggested feeling. Take this, for example: ?A lone little boy /in a raggedy jacket / stares at his torn feet.? I have cued the reader with adjectives, but the more effective ones apply to the boy?s jacket and feet, strengthening the sense of his vulnerability. Sometimes even a plain-spoken haiku can be less plain-spoken than it first seems. When I write: ?Water in a jug / cradled in one arm, she dreams / sweet nuptial pleasures,? the imagery of water, the cradled jug, and dreams of nuptial pleasures constitutes an erotic nexus. Then there?s the example of: ?When I enter you — / an oar making firm ripples / in a tender stream.? The imagery of sex is explicit only in the first line, the rest is erotically suggestive. And the beautiful thing about haiku is that it can evoke feeling simply by scene-setting as in: ?She watches the stars / looping through willow branches, / nothing in her arms.? The first two lines present a concrete picture, while the third uses a negative image and yet manages to represent the woman?s sadness.

Haiku is, therefore, a good discipline for me because I?ve often tended to overwrite or be overly explicit. Even though I can write haiku quickly, I still feel a subtle pressure in the form to slow down and appreciate the poignant impermanence of life. Haiku allows me to honour emotions without necessarily philosophizing or explaining them. Haiku allows me to be passionate in a tempered way about little moments.

EW: And this comes through? I must say, Keith, that it?s been my pleasure to engage with you in this extended and many-cornered conversation, and to have worked with you on Moon On Wild Grasses. In reading and re-reading your haiku — the tersest of your works — the aesthetic of spareness never feels spare. Like the haiku masters of old, you are able to invoke whole scenes — even alternate possibilities of being — and stoke powerful emotion with the smallest handful of well-chosen words. Like these:

With fresh plump peaches
I visited Grandmother
who gave me kisses


Elana Wolff has taught English for academic purposes at York University and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her time between writing, editing and designing and facilitating therapeutic community art. Elana has published a collection of essays on poems and five books of poetry with Guernica Editions, including You Speak to Me in Trees, awarded the F.G. Bressani Prize. Most recently she co-edited with Julie Roorda, Poet to Poet, an anthology of poems and back stories. A bilingual edition of her selected poems is forthcoming with Éditions du Noroît.









Keith Garebian is a widely published, award-winning author. He has published over 1200 reviews, interviews and features in over 80 newspapers, journals and magazines. He has also published 19 books and a chapbook to date, including five of poetry — the latest being Moon On Wild Grasses (Guernica Editions) — to launch at the Supermarket, 269 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market, Toronto, on April 21st, 4-6 p.m. Nominated in the Established Literary category for a 2013 Mississauga Arts Award, Keith is currently working on a new biography of William Hutt. He lives in Mississauga.

For more information about Moon on Wild Grasses please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.


9 comments

What a magnanimous interview! - Henry Beissel

Incredible and enlightening review.

Incredible! A must reread to fully appreciate the depth of this revealing and intelligent interview. Kudos to Keith Garebian and Elana Wolff.

Spectacular interview. It shows how brilliant you are as well as Elana Wolff. But you never lose your human side and manage to keep it simple. - Nonnie Griffin

Extraordinarily comprehensive, deeply illuminating. I am very grateful to you and Elana for providing this?its sheer scope (a rarity online), and the sustained eloquence that conveys so much uncommon insight, wisdom, and incentive for further reflection. - Allan Briesmaster

Absolutely terrific interview: intelligent, revealing, far-ranging. - Martin Levin

It?s such a rare moment when an interviewer is able to prepare themselves so thoroughly and with such intelligence and sensitivity. - Atom Egoyan

terrific interview

To the Editor,
This is fantastic. One of the best--probing, intelligent, informative, honest, elegant, beguiling--interviews I have read, including in the "Paris Review" and the glorious ones "Playboy" used to publish with political and literary giants in the '60s.
The interview with Keith Garebian should be published in a book and not just float in cyberia. Mind you, perhaps its length is a tribute to cyber space: these days few print magazines would provide such ample space to a literary interview, no matter how worthwhile.
Also a "bravo" to Ms. Wolff.

- Jirair Tutunjian

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