Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

On Writing, with Patrick Woodcock

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Patrick Woodcock

Poet and wanderer Patrick Woodcock has lived in countries as diverse as Iceland, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Oman. His recent experiences in the Kurdish North of Iraq led to the writing of his newest collection, Echo Gods and Silent Mountains, released this month with ECW Press.

Patrick talks to Open Book about the revealing voices of poets, the writer-as-witness and the impulse to always keep moving.

For a truly unique reading of "White Boots," one of the poems in Echo Gods and Silent Mountains, click here.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Echo Gods and Silent Mountains.

Patrick Woodcock:

It is a book containing my most accessible work written in the Kurdish North of Iraq from Dec 2008 ? Dec 2010. It is in four sections: The first is Echo Gods which contains a variety of poems about what I saw while living and working in Kurdistan. Section two, Silent Mountains, is a prose poem rant — a shriek into a cave and the reverberations that follow. I hope it illustrates the chaotic pace of modern Kurdistan. Section three is called Sardasht Osman Is not dead which is written in the voice of the murdered student from Erbil — the simple diction and tone of the poem are modeled after reading and studying the few articles and poems he wrote. And lastly, section four, is an introduction to the protagonist of the next book, Farhang. Poems like "the disillusioned exchange student," "Mariama Sits," and "Farhang" are quite representative of where the work that follows will go.


How did you come to be living in the Kurdish North of Iraq?


I was living in Colombia and looking for somewhere interesting to relocate to. When I move to a new country I want it to be drastically different than the one before. I initially wanted to move to Iran but encountered far too many problems trying to arrange it — I found an ad for a school in Erbil (the Kurds call it Hawler) and that was it. I don?t spend long periods of time analyzing my decisions. So I left Colombia on the 10th of December, spent two weeks with my father and flew to Iraq on the 26th. The first night was quite odd due to the geographical extremes I had just gone through. I walked around the streets in the evening in a really grand euphoric haze — I love that feeling — when confusion and fear and excitement all collide within you at the same time.


Why do use poetry to give voice to what you witness, as opposed to, for instance, creative non-fiction?


The more I have travelled, the more I have found non-fiction travel writing to be exaggerated observations full of useless, outdated facts. I have learned far more about the countries I have visited, or lived in, through the eyes of their poets and people. Non-fiction, especially in countries going through a period of reconstruction, becomes dated within weeks of publication. The first country I moved to was Poland — I had purchased travel guides and found them to be only slightly helpful . Although the Rough Guide helped me a little, I learned more from reading Ewa Lipska, Anna ?wirszczy?ska and Milosz.


Echo Gods and Silent Mountains is infused with your experience of the trauma and persecution faced by the Kurdish people. How do you work through your emotional responses to such devastating personal and cultural histories? Was there ever a time that you felt unable to carry on with your project?


I?d only stop a project if something or someone physically stopped me from completing it. I am Canadian, and lucky to be so, so I have no right to close my eyes and run away from anything. I feel I have a moral obligation to witness as much as I can and help whenever possible. To hide within the safe geographical bubble of my country of birth is criminal as far as I?m concerned. The Kurds were wonderful to me, and for many of them, talking to me was a form of therapy. To meet someone from the west who wasn?t there to work for an oil company was a welcome surprise. Beyond the word, is the impetus for needing it. In the end, travel is as essential to me as prosody and versification, I?d never give it up.


The first poem in Echo Gods and Silent Mountains is called "July 1st Epilogue," while the final poem is "Farhang: An Introduction." Why this reversal?


"July 1st Epilogue" is just a simple entry that really sums up the difficulty of writing and living in Kurdistan — the lack of records, the confusion of dates and time — it is a simple piece that hints at the puzzles ahead. It came about after talking to a friend of mine, the writer Sabri Silevani. He showed me his ID and then many others from his colleagues. They all had the same birthdate — July 1st. Their families were mostly from villages where they couldn?t always take time off to register a new birth in the family. So when it was done — weeks, months or years down the road, for some reason all of the parents would say the birthdate was July 1st. No one could explain this to me.

"Farhang: An Introduction" leads into the next book called Farhang — a prose poem novella about an imprisoned writer and his brother. I?ve set it in a country resembling the Kurdish North of Iraq.


How has your recent experience living in Fort Good Hope, NWT affected you as a writer?


I have been trying to write longer poems — with long fluid lines — Robert Lowell lines. The landscape of Fort Good Hope has helped me a lot with this. Sitting in the middle of the frozen Mackenzie has helped me visualize the architecture of what I want to write next. At night when the sun is setting there are a variety of colours that undulate around the tops of the silhouetted tree tops — my use of stress and syllables has been influenced by the patterns I see there — I guess I am reading the landscape like sheet music. I know this sounds like rubbish but it is true. If you saw it you?d agree.


Which writers do you most admire and why?


There are too many to list. But I am always drawn to writers who have sacrificed it all for their work. The desire to give it all up for a poem — even if the poem only appears on one?s deathbed.


Where will your wanderings (and your writing) take you next?


After Fort Good Hope I will move to Africa. But this will take some time to organize since I refuse to work for a religious organization. Ideally, I?d like to be in the Congo by mid-2013.

Patrick Woodcock is the author of eight books of poetry including his newest collection, Echo Gods and Silent Mountains (ECW/misFit) He was the poetry editor for the Literary Review of Canada and has published extensively in Canada, the U.S., England, India, Colombia and the Middle East. Because travel is so essential to his writing, he has lived everywhere from Iceland to Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Oman, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He currently resides in Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories.

For more information about Echo Gods and Silent Mountains please visit the ECW website.

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

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