Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

On Writing, with Méira Cook

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Meira Cook

Méira Cook talks to Open Book about trying to capture the motion of walking through language, about the mysterious woman with half-unbuttoned coat who strode right into the middle of her manuscript and about her newest poetry collection, A Walker in the City (Brick Books).

Méira Cook will be reading at Toronto's Art Bar Reading Series on Tuesday, February 7th, and at the Pivot Reading Series on Wednesday, February 8th. Visit Open Book: Toronto's Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, A Walker in the City.

Méira Cook:

I began with a problem — how to represent the rhythm of walking in language. What’s the correspondence between metrical rhythms and pacing, between — say — run-on lines and the momentum of hurrying through a chill winter city, between internal rhyme and internal tread. It seemed to me — when I first began thinking through this aesthetic problem — that walking, ambling, striding, strolling and meandering, getting lost and making detours, giving strangers the wrong directions so as to allow them the splendid opportunity to get lost, dodging puddles and broken sidewalks during spring run-off or pulling a stick across the struts of a wrought iron fence — all these, well these perambulations you could say, they have an inner tempo. And I wanted to discover their approximations in language.

Because I wanted to write about a walker in the city, you see, a loiterer and ambler, a flâneur. Someone — and at first I thought, I assumed, this someone would be, um, me (at least a carefully disguised poetic me) some walker who measures distance in feet and time in pages. She shares a passing glance with a stranger but follows herself like a lover through all the real streets of an imaginary city. So I wanted to write a book that would chart the waywardness and astonishment of her progress.

And, of course, I wanted to set my narrative in Winnipeg. My Winnipeg, to coin a phrase. It’s the city I wanted to return to as a walker and a writer, an immigrant and a citizen, because Winnipeg remains an unresolved place for me; an imaginary, impossible, willful and unruly city to which I’ve come and departed and returned again. You see if you’re an immigrant then you have to learn to live in a new city, to accommodate yourself to the rhythms of a place that’s not yet home. So how? How do you learn to love a place of confusing corners and forking rivers, of boulevards and bridges and train tracks and sleepwalkers who seem to be forever shuffling along cracked sidewalks while snow shores up the collapsing scaffold of winter?

I became a walker in earnest, a walker in all seasons — a strider in winter, an unrepentant kicker of leaves in fall, and so on. And that’s when I began to discover the lives of streets, the beguiling rhythms of neighbourhoods as I wandered through them on weekday mornings. I noticed single mittens that had been dropped in the snow, how passersby caught each other’s glance for a moment on narrow streets, how walking began to solve — a little, for me — the world. And yes, I think, I really think that I started to walk myself into the city, into a sense of citizenry and placement. Into my hard won, hard walked Winnipeg.


Your book has a complicated narrative structure. Can you tell us about it and how it developed?


My impulse at this point is to say, Oh dear not too complicated, I hope. Erm, more like complex, brainy, and devastatingly subtle, surely? But no, I think you’re right: A Walker in the City is fairly complicated structurally speaking although technically it’s only a narrative poem divided into seven parts. But here’s how it growed like Topsy.

One day, during the earliest stages of writing and, much as you might imagine, to my astonishment a young woman strolled towards me across the page. Hands in her pockets, her jacket half unbuttoned, she was jaunty and singular and simply would not walk on the right side of the street or keep between the lines I was trying to write for her. After an initial struggle — after all I was the writer, wasn’t I? — I let her set off on her detours and tangents, resolving to follow close behind to see where she led.

Perhaps the other character in Walker originated in this restraining impulse. He’s a grudgy old man, a failing poet who seems to be coming to the end of his craft. The pitcher in him is half full. Intrigued by the girl he begins to follow her about the city — in his imagination at least — the pace of thoughts mimicking the rhythm of the walker. Of course, it’s not unconventional to create poetic characters that impel a narrative. Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack and Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid are two famous examples of how brilliantly long poems can work particularly when they’re sustained by imagery, rhythm and line rather than the more novelistic devices of motive, development and so on. But it was a new experience for me, writing “characters” in poetry, and I loved it, loved every minute of it. Mostly because of the splendid rush of freedom it afforded of being released from the tyranny of the first-person. That devious, egotistical, wall-eyed, old you-know-who.

The structure of Walker follows on from there — the two walkers, Kulperstein and Em, follow one another about the city in various guises and disguises. Being a poet, naturally I love plot, suspense, denouement, confoundment. So I made my characters protean, changeable. They’re shape shifters, and each section is written a little differently, as if a prism has shifted slightly. For example the suite entitled “The Beautiful Assassin” is a poem noir, a sort of murder mystery in which, I’m sorry to say, one of the two main characters is destined to be dispatched precisely halfway through the book.

It certainly verges on a literary faux pas — this poetic dispatchment. And the problem then is how I rescue my narrative — how I extricate my characters (with enormous cunning and daring) so that they can continue for a further 45 action-packed pages (related in nuanced language with bold metaphorical skill).

Course I’m not going to say how I did it — you have to read the book…


What reoccurring themes or obsessions do you notice in your writing?


I’m less concerned, immediately, with themes than with problems I’m trying to solve with each poem or collection. I mean problems in language that have been perplexing me for a while. And I’ve talked at great length about that and won’t again, I promise.

But, yes, of course there are themes, although naturally I’d prefer someone else to spot them, name them and so on. It’s a self-conscious problem this business of writing poetry, and it’s not always easy to notice recurring motifs in your own work.

Finding a home, though, is one. In the world, in language. Living in the world as if it is home. On the other hand I’m persuaded that folks like writers and artists work better in a state of theoretical homelessness — all the better to poke and prod at the beautiful hominess of the Bourgeois dream and say challenging things like Ha! or Oh Yeah!

But, you know, more lyrically.


What genre or period of poetry are you most drawn to?


All poetry and at all times. Most times. Okay, not Shelley or Wordsworth on account of the inevitable association I make between Romantic Poetry and public humiliation. When I was in elementary school — in South Africa — we were “disciplined” for minor infractions by having to learn and recite their poems. I can still recite Ozymandius and Lines upon Westminster Bridge provided I don’t take a single breath, although the experience tends to leave me feeling queasy, resentful and vaguely guilt-stricken.

The Caribbean poet Derek Walcott writes about the “daffodil gap,” which is a brilliant way of describing the lag of apprehension and understanding that writers in colonized countries feel when they’re confronted by a Great Poem that describes something of Enormous Beauty that the writer has never yet seen growing in his (Walcott’s) native soil.
Or mine either. I grew up in a hot and dusty city in whose gardens aloes flamed and burned and kikuyu grass sent long dry runners through red dust in the drought season. No wandering clouds, no bobbing crowds of daffodils. Something was out of balance — either poetry or nature. I’m still wary of nature, don’t believe in daffodils, larkspurs, or nightingales, am churlishly unconvinced by their modern day equivalents (prairie grasses, crocuses, crows) and, I believe, have refined my dislike of the objective correlative to a fine art.

A long justification of what I don’t like, I know, but what I like is much more to the point. Mostly I like tasty poets who spring-load their language so that it jumps about inside your mouth when you read it — Gerard Manley Hopkins and Daphne Marlatt and John Berryman and John Donne. One of my favourite poets is Don McKay, who makes a subtle and convincing case for nature in every word — prose and poetry — that he writes.


Who are some people (fellow writers or not) who have deeply influenced your writing life?


I had the good fortune to take a class with Robert Kroetsch, who was a mentor to so many. He was a wonderful teacher, the sort of man who’d toss off a pithy aphorism that would resound in the minds of his students for years. What he said once was: It’s no longer possible to write love poems. We can only write poems of desire.

Well of course most of us went off and wrote love poems to try and prove him wrong and, hey ho Silver, ended up with the inevitable paeans to desire that you’d expect, my own terrible poem being no exception. But — but, I remained so invigorated by the idea of the impossibility of love poems that I later researched and wrote a book on the subject. It’s called Writing Lovers and it focuses on Canadian love poetry by women.

When I came to Canada in the early 1990s I tried to read and write my way into the culture, and I was so lucky to find good teachers. Provocative and challenging teachers. Dionne Brand told me that my poems started well before they began and Fred Wah said they ended much too long after they had properly finished. Or ought to have. I listened to both of these splendid teachers, and if my poems are more succinct as a result then I am certain they’re also much improved.


What are you working on now?


I’ve just finished the edits to a novel that’s coming out in September. It’s set in South Africa — Johannesburg, more precisely — just after the first general election when Mandela became president. It’s not about Mandela or being president though, it’s about the relationship between a woman and the family for whom she’s worked as a domestic servant for over thirty years.

A Walker in the City is Méira Cook’s third book of poetry with Brick Books. The opening poem of this collection won first place in the 2006 CBC Literary Awards, and poems in this series were selected as part of the Poetry in Motion initiative. Her earlier books with Brick Books are Toward a Catalogue of Falling (1996) and Slovenly Love (2003). Méira Cook lives, writes and walks in Winnipeg.

For more information about A Walker in the City please visit the Brick Books website.

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

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