25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with James Deahl

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James Deahl

James Deahl talks to Open Book about his newest collection of poetry, Rooms the Wind Makes (Guernica), the reward of translating poetry and he explains why his work is infused with images and descriptions of the natural world.

James will be launching Rooms the Wind Makes with four other Guernica Editions poets on Sunday, April 29, 2012, in Toronto's vibrant Kensington Market. Click here to learn more about the event.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new poetry collection, Rooms the Wind Makes.

James Deahl:

Rooms the Wind Makes is a selection of individual poems I wrote between July 1992 and October 1999 that fit into my conception of the final volume of the quadripartite elemental project that started almost 30 years ago with my No Cold Ash. This series continued with Even This Land Was Born Of Light and When Rivers Speak.


Rooms the Wind Makes begins with poems "Letter to Strand" and "Letter to Denise Levertov." Why did you choose to begin your collection this way, and why these two poets in particular?


Critics who are far more learned than I am consider the story of Orpheus to form the central myth of Western poetry. My poem is, in part, a reply to Mark Strand?s Orpheus poem. Strand?s work as a whole can be taken as a profound lament for the collapse of Americanism, and of its attendant empire.

The United States was the grand Puritan experiment. The Canadian-born Strand is better able to understand this than most American-born writers, although Carl Sandburg is very strong here, as is Robert Lowell. As an American poet who rejected the spiritual ideology of Americanism, I?m also concerned about this subject.

Denise Levertov is an exceedingly great poet and essayist. My poetry is closer to hers than to any other poet?s work. I believe that she benefits from being British born and raised. Like Strand, Levertov also sees with a deep clarity, but her poetry refuses to remain imprisoned within a lament. It is a celebration and a protest.

I believe it?s important to both reject and understand Americanism. This is especially true because I?ve witnessed Canadians become ever more American with each passing decade. (I moved to Ontario 42 years ago.)


Your poems are infused with images and descriptions of the natural world. How does your environment affect your writing?


For five decades the natural world has exercised an evermore profound influence on my poetry. Each of my poems is rooted in a real place, and that place is of signal importance. Everywhere I journey, be it across North America, the British Isles, or the Iberian Peninsula, has an impact on my writing.

The roots of poetry ? or my poetry, anyhow ? plunge deeply in geography, history, and spirituality, the spirituality of place, not necessarily of religion. In this way my work is like that of Gary Snyder and Gerry Shikatani.

For me it?s important to celebrate the beauty and goodness of creation. We really have marvellous lives, but I find contemporary literature tends to be far too negative. It?s distressing to see unhappiness made into an aesthetic cult.


Which writers have had the greatest influence on your work?


Some 50 years ago I was inspired by the Beat Generation, especially Allen Ginsberg, and Populist Poetry, especially Carl Sandburg. Don Allen?s The New American Poetry (1960) remains a major influence. In his anthology I encountered Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Olson, and, of course, Ginsberg and Levertov among others. My life changed forever.

Other major inspirations continue to arise from the poetry of Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, T.S. Eliot, Michael Wurster, Dylan Thomas, and the Canadians Gerry Shikatani and Phyllis Webb. In my opinion, the finest poet in English during the first half of the 20th Century is Eliot; during the second half it?s Duncan. Contemporary English-language poetry blooms in the luxuriant shadows cast by such writers.

Other, older, poetry that I love and often reread comes from Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Sidney Lanier, and the English poets Thomas Gray and John Clare. (I have four volumes of Longfellow at my bedside.)

And then we come to Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado and the stunning literature of the Spanish world. (I?ve translated a bit of Lorca.) When I began to read Spanish poetry my life changed again.

Finally, I encountered Asian poetry around the time I started my studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College (autumn 1964), initially via Kenneth Rexroth?s translations and later those of Gary Snyder. A very early example of this is ?The West Virginia Wesleyan Tanka? included in Rooms the Wind Makes. A more recent example is my The River?s Stone Roots: Two dozen poems by Tu Fu (2005).

As a writer, I find it to be of surpassing value to know a culture outside that of Old Testament Jews and ancient Greeks. Westerners have much to learn from the people of China, Japan, and India.


What are the ideal circumstances under which to write a poem?


Peace of mind and absence of stress. Only the poems in If Ever Two Were One were written under great stress and turmoil. Naturally, in some quarters this is rated as my finest book.


You are also a translator of poetry. How does the experience of translating a poem differ from the experience of writing one?


Translation involves living another poet?s world. It can be the Spain of Lorca or the Quebec of Émile Nelligan. What is central is that it is their Spain, their Quebec, not mine. When I?m in Spain or Quebec I write James Deahl poems set in those places. And those are quite different from Lorca?s Spain and Nelligan?s French Canada, which I try to re-create.

Translation is hard work, but I learn another poet?s world. That?s the reward.


What are you working on now?


New poems, of course. Plus the selected poems of both Milton Acorn and Norma West Linder. And because I?ve just moved to Sarnia, I?m exploring the world of Southwestern Ontario, attempting to find my place, so to speak. This is crucial for my new poems.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, James Deahl moved to Canada in 1970. He is a founding member of the Canadian Poetry Association. A cycle of his poems was the focus of a one-hour television special, Under the Watchful Eye (1993). He has published (or translated) numerous books of poetry, including Love Where Our Nights Are Long and If Ever Two Were One. He lives in Sarnia.

For more information about Rooms the Wind Makes please visit the Guernica Editions website.

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

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