Excerpt from “Poetry Seminar with bpNichol, George Bowering, and Daphne Marlatt, July 21, 1982”

The following transcript is an excerpt from a poetry seminar given by the three authors at Simon Fraser University’s Pub Seminar room in 1982. The event was recorded by SFU audiovisual technician Kurtis Vanel and is now held in The Capilano Review fonds at SFU Special Collections. The audio and transcript are reproduced with the permission of the speakers and the estate of bpNichol.

Listen to the original audio excerpt from “Poetry Seminar with bpNichol, George Bowering, and Daphne Marlatt, July 21, 1982”

Audience member: While voice is being talked about, can I ask you, Daphne: I remember hearing you read from Steveston quite a number of years ago down at the Western Front and had not seen it on the page. Now when I go to read it, I can’t— I hear your voice reading it. I was interested when you said you composed on typewriter because I had a sense of both this incredible rush, and also of a breathlessness, like these breathy pauses. I don’t know exactly what I’m asking here. Maybe I’m trying to ask partly how the typewriter helps that because it can keep up.

Daphne Marlatt: Yes, and also going out to the very end of the possible margin. That had a lot to do with it because I was coming from very short-lined poems. The poems in leaf leaf/s are very short—sometimes just one syllable. Words are dropping over the line break, in half. It was a high to suddenly say, “Okay, the margin is going be”—it felt like—“this long.”

There is this what I think of as a really “prose” urge to push always to the end, and yet to forestall arriving at it. That fascination with syntax where you think— You don’t think but it arrives, and you find yourself in situations. Then you respond in the moment of it. But the situations are syntactic situations. How do I get out of this one? I’m not ready for a period yet [laughs].

Audience member: I find even trying to read it… I don’t know what it would’ve been like if I had tried to read it before I had heard you read it. Yeah, that would be, but I had this sense of being absolutely just rushed through, pushed. Your voice is the compelling force.

DM: Well, of course, I spent hours beside that river, too. That was my metaphor. My linguistic metaphor was that river. Carrying all that stuff.

George Bowering: It doesn’t gasp and stuff. It just rolls on.

DM: Oh, that’s the human! You know, we don’t have lungs like rivers [laughs].

GB: Rivers are written in blank verse [laughter].

We made a vow many years ago in the TISH office. I remember we said, “Listen, when it comes to reading poems, we must read like this: “lug the blocks [inhales] / walls rise [inhales] / joists & columns [inhales] / frame the windows / glass.”[1] And we said, “Now, no matter how many critics say that’s terrible and awful, and readers can’t stand it, we’ve got to keep on doing that.” So, we did that for years and years.

DM: I remember Dorothy Livesay trying to improve my reading habits [laughter].

GB: I write in the third person partly because it’s closer for the reader, who is me. It’s simple in one sense. I guess it’s complicated, but it’s simple in one sense. You can have that experience you have as a reader, in which, if it’s written in the third person, you and the composer are perhaps looking almost from the same angle at the thing with a parallax. Whereas if it’s written in the first person the reader is made into a second person who is being spoken to, and therefore distanced. That’s part of it. The other part probably has to do with puritanism. But you see what I mean, if you’re reading, “He did this, and he did this, and he did that,” you and the writer can almost identify with one another. You can almost fill the same space.

[cut in tape]

Roy Miki: —why most poetry is fiction. Look at Daphne’s work. I’m just opening it to one section called “Finn Road,” which is short, and it’s obvious… I don’t have to read it, but you can see where she goes from first, second, and third person and is not making the choices, but allowing the positioning of the voice to move with the needs of the narrative or the necessity of the writing. So it goes, “Seems like with men around, you’re always at the stove.”[2] You’ve got a set first person speaking in a second-person narrative. That’s different. You don’t make a choice, do you?

DM: How does the reader experience that?

GB: You leave the grammar out, right? Or leave the—

Audience member: It’s the reader’s recognition and control.

GB:  Well, Daphne writes in sentence fragments, too, which I don’t so much [Daphne half-laughs]. Well, you do.

DM: I know.

GB: And Barry does. I don’t use fragments much.

bpNichol: Well, using the sentence fragment in a poem gives you a different tonal and sound flexibility.

GB: I think it partly has to do with your noun thing.

BN: Yeah, partly.

DM: It also has to do with the play between what’s said and what isn’t said—what’s unsaid.

BN: Well, I write in the first person [laughs], partly because one of the goals I set for myself when I was 20 or 18 or something, was to find a way to write about completely loaded emotional material without sentimentalizing it, without—quotation marks—“romanticizing” it, and without melodramatizing it. Probably when I say romanticizing, I really mean melodramatizing, which is harder to do in the first person. So, it’s like a little challenge I set for myself. I also like the “I.” I like the “me,” I like the “I,” and I think you need it in terms of the “we,” to articulate that. I’m not a reader who necessarily feels distanced by the “I” either. I find as the “I” goes on, I will start to identify with the “I” that’s speaking in ways that I feel some kinship with. So, to me, in fact, that’s not necessarily my reading experience. So that could be a subjective reading experience on his—[to George] on your part.

GB: Not subjective, logical. [Laughter]

BN: It’s not necessarily logical, but it’s definitely psychological. [Laughter]

GB: Well, I don’t know about that.

BN: So, you definitely get a different effect with the third person I think it’s also partly the fashion of the times, you know? For instance, Stein’s notion of the continuous present, the “-ing” verb still tends to be unfashionable. We prefer the still photo. We prefer the “-ed” ending. We prefer it framed [claps hands shut]. “I shot the picture” as opposed to “I am shooting the picture.” Or even “I shoot the picture” as opposed to “I am shooting the picture” frames it, finishes it off and you move on discreetly, whereas in that continuous present there is no closure. I’ve heard people in writing classes say, “Never use ‘-ing’ verbs.” I mean, they literally say that. “Never use ‘-ing’ verbs.” What a weird statement. What they really mean is they don’t like the sound, they don’t like that feeling of non-closure.

Or they’ll say, “No confessional poetry,” to magazines. Now Sylvia Plath’s got to be one of the big hits of the century, right? Would we call this confessional poetry, or would we call this confessional poetry?

GB: I was going to say a little while ago that, that you used the “I” because the Martyrology is a kind of a confessional autobiography.

BN: Well, it has that thing. But it also is dealing with the notion of journal. But all I’m saying is you get kind of fashions of the moment that don’t necessarily relate to the problems of dealing with the word “I” or the word “he.” I mean, it’s a different problem to write in the “he.” It can be very difficult to write in that third-person impersonal. It can be as tricky for a person to do it as to write in the first person. In fact, for some people, you can tell they can’t control the “I…” I mean, if you can’t control the “I” in your writing, the trick is to write in the “he” or “she.” Then you’ll get control of the “I.” That’s the way you get it.

GB: Your first person has almost become, for you, probably a third person [laughter].

DM: No, I think that’s an important thing, what both of you are touching on because the “I” fundamentally has no limits. It can eat up the whole world. You know?

[1] Lines from bpNichol’s Martyrology (Book 3).

[2] Lines from Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston.

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