25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with James Pollock

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James Pollock

Poet and critic James Pollock has recently released You Are Here (The Porcupine's Quill), a collection of essays that investigates the newer Canadian poetry that has become more cosmopolitan and technically sophisticated. James's collection of poetry, Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press), was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Literary Awards.

In his interview with Open Book, James tells us what discussion he is hoping to generate with You Are Here, what drew him towards criticism and how living as an ex-pat has influenced his criticism and poetry.

Open Book:

You Are Here is a collection of essays about contemporary Canadian poetry. Who did you write this book for, and what sort of discussion are you hoping it will generate?

James Pollock:

I want to change the way we read Canadian poetry. We ought to read it in the context of poetry as an art, by which I mean, world poetry from antiquity to now. Our best poets have been writing in that context for decades. But Canadian poetry as a whole is isolated from the rest of the world, especially in the way it gets read. It?s up to us to put an end to that. My book is for anyone who wants to see that happen.


As you mention in this book, only a minority of Canadian poets would consider themselves critics as well as poets. What has drawn you to criticism, and are both avenues of expression equally important to you?


When I was in graduate school in Houston, my poetry professors expected my classmates and me to read the criticism of American and English poets like Eliot, Winters, Auden, Jarrell, Dickey, Berryman, Longenbach and so on, not to mention just plain critics like Blackmur and Vendler. Two of my professors, Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch, were poet-critics themselves, and another, Frank Kermode, was just a first-rate critic. Everyone understood that developing our own critical faculties was integral to our development as poets. This assumption was central to the culture there. Mind you, it was a Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, so it was designed to produce graduates who could do both.


There is less space now for reviews of Canadian poetry, especially in mainstream print publications. Do you feel that the conversation about poetry suffers as a result, or do the new online venues open up possibilities for critical discussion that did not exist previously?


I?m far more concerned about the quality of the reviews that get published than I am about the venues they appear in. In fact, having lots of poor quality reviews in mainstream publications is almost worse than having no reviews at all. What we need is more good critics. If they?re good enough, people will read them.


What does living as an ex-pat bring to your poetry and/or criticism?


It?s hard to answer that question briefly. Among other things, it had a profound effect on my graduate training in both kinds of writing, since, as far as I know, there is no equivalent program in Canada. It?s hard to overestimate the effect this training had on me as a writer, in all kinds of ways.

For example, Houston turned me into a lover of European poetry. One of my professors was Adam Zagajewski, the Polish poet. Another was Richard Howard, a prolific translator of French literature, including Baudelaire. And Edward Hirsch, my dissertation director, was a passionate advocate of a lot of great European poets I?d barely heard of. I took an unforgettable course from him in which we read Baudelaire, Rilke, Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Celan, Hikmet and Szymborska, and were introduced to Rimbaud, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Milosz, Herbert, Hernandez, Alberti, Montale and Pessoa. And later I took one of my comprehensive exams in that field. It was a revelation. It changed everything.


Aside from size, what is one major difference between the American and Canadian poetry communities that strikes you?


There?s a huge appetite among many American poets and readers for poetry from all over the world. And because of them, we?re living in a great age of translation. American poets translate other poets, write critical essays about them and respond to them in their own poetry. And poets from all over the world teach at American universities, and bring their cosmopolitan literary sensibilities with them. In Canada, there?s very little translation, the journals are concerned almost exclusively with Canadian poetry and the whole conversation feels largely cut off from the outside world. Things are better now in this regard than they were 20 years ago, but we?ve still got a long way to go.


Tell us about your own collection of poetry, Sailing to Babylon, which was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Literary Awards.


On one level, the book is full of secret responses to other poets and poems. It?s been fun reading the critical reactions to the book so far, and seeing people catch the allusions. For example, I have a short poem called ?The Poet at Seven,? which has three specific poems in mind. And I?ve just seen the proofs of a review that is about to appear in the American journal Pleiades — not for approval, mind you, just as a courtesy — in which the reviewer notices that the poem is an argument with Rimbaud?s ?Poets, Age Seven.? It was a pleasure to read that.


Is it difficult for you to tone down your inner critic when you are working on your own poetry? How do you manage the changing of hats?


With all due respect, I think the question conflates two opposed meanings of the word ?critic.? Self-doubt — ?the inner critic,? if that?s what you mean — is something every apprentice writer must overcome through perseverance and the development of technique. But the literary critic learns, by writing criticism, a great deal about technique (among other things), and this in turn makes criticism a powerful ally in his or her early struggle against self-doubt. So the critic and ?the inner critic,? in this sense, are mortal enemies.

But if by ?the inner critic? you mean one?s capacity for sensitive and honest reading of one?s own work, nothing could be more valuable to a poet. So in this sense, the inner critic and the poet are one. If there is any changing of hats, it?s just a matter of switching from one genre of writing to another, which is often a relief.


What are you working on now?


There?s an essay on Stephanie Bolster that is long overdue with my editor at Canadian Notes & Queries. As for my next book of poetry — that?s a secret.

James Pollock grew up in southwestern Ontario. He is a graduate of York University and completed his doctorate at the University of Houston where he held several fellowships in poetry. He was a John Woods Scholar in the Prague Summer Program at Charles University in the Czech Republic, and a work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers? Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. Pollock?s critical reviews and essays have appeared in journals on both sides of the border, including Contemporary Poetry Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, The New Quarterly, Books in Canada, Literary Review of Canada and Canadian Notes & Queries. His poetry has been published in The Paris Review, The Fiddlehead, Poetry Daily, Canadian Literature, AGNI, Maisonneuve, Southern Poetry Review, Geist, The Del Sol Review and elsewhere. In 2010 he was listed in Best Canadian Poetry. He is an Associate Professor at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches creative writing and Canadian literature. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

For more information about You Are Here please visit the Porcupine's Quill's website.

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

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