Pacific Rim Review of Books

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What We Miss: Linda Rogers talks to Glen Sorestad
about his new book and his life in poetry

what we miss

Glen Sorestad
Thistledown Press, 2010

It usually takes generations of cultural memory to create a poet like Glen Sorestad, but the recent Member of The Order of Canada has neatly fit his mountain socks inside a farmer’s boots. Even though he was born in Vancouver, on the West Coast of Canada, it is a prairie wind that moves through the polymath who has devoted many years to teaching and publishing literary books at Thistledown Press.

The poems in what we miss, the latest of twenty volumes, could not have been written anywhere but Saskatchewan, where Sorestad was, from the years 2000 to 2004, the poet laureate. The prairie dictates a pragmatic approach, one finger held up to the wind. Its poets listen for the weather, for the migration of birds, for the path of the sun to determine the arrangement of words on a page.

I was ten when I moved with my parents to Saskatchewan to the very rural area where both of my parents had grown up. By the time I graduated from high school at seventeen and was on my own, I thought of myself very much as a prairie boy – not that my earlier childhood had vanished. But those years from ten to seventeen, very important in a boy’s life, were obviously so prairie/rural that no one would have had reason to suggest that I wasn’t prairie through and through. I was at home in the boundless landscape just as I had accustomed to an extreme climate. Much of my earliest writing is overtly prairie-oriented in so many respects that it almost seems amusing to me now. But I realized, long after I began writing seriously, how profoundly I was influenced by Anne Marriot’s poem, “The Wind Our Enemy” and in some respects my early poetry was unknowingly paying homage to Marriot.

But as I wrote more and experienced life in so many different places and parts of the world, I found myself realizing, more and more, that there is a part of me that still is very much in tune with a small section of Vancouver and of Burnaby. This re-surfaces at various times, increasingly, in my writing, as memory takes me back to moments of my pre-teen childhood years. Though I am in my seventies now, I have come to appreciate that there is one-seventh of me that is undeniably West Coast. I can call myself a true-blue, hardcore flatlander, but it can never be entirely true. One reading my poetry from beginning to end – heaven forbid that anyone should feel so compelled – would also find that the poetry discloses this chunk of West Coast in me that can not be denied and that will have its say from time to time in my writing. Just this past January in Cuba, I wrote two poems that are a good illustration of this. Here’s one:

Vancouver, 1942

One part of his childhood
he remembers by the doors.

The front door opened on a loud,
bold world of rattling streetcars
and growling autos, cement sidewalks
and brooding black lamp posts;

the back door opened on a quiet
green space, tiny and tidy with shrubs
and flowers, a walkway leading
to a gate to the back alley.

Visitors rang the doorbell,
entered from the street,
all smiles and laughter.

People who knocked
at the back door never came
into the house. These were
silent Japanese fishermen,
carrying wicker baskets
of fresh Pacific salmon
they sold to my mother.

Unlike fellow Saskatoon poet Anne Szumigalski, who was of the enclosed garden rather than the far horizon, who always heard piano music over the sound of birds and wind in the grass, always quintessentially English, Sorestad became a man of the New World Steppes, his sensibility practical, his mysteries as simple and complicated as the seeds produced by grain.

Here in Saskatchewan we learn
to hold our tongues.

At the end of the day, a good teacher has made a great cultural contribution. But still the muse teases a poet in those minutes before sleep. Sometimes they are filled with regret. Sorestad explains how he has found the balance in his life and work.

There is no question for me that because teaching, at least for the good teacher, is a very intense creative activity, this means that there is very little left in the creative fuel tank, either at day’s end or by week’s end. I’ve truly admired those notable teachers who somehow managed to accomplish significant writing while teaching full-time because I found this impossible to do while I was teaching English and working late in the evenings either reading student writing or preparing lessons. To balance teaching and writing at the same time with any success requires, it seems to me, a degree of self-discipline and time management that escaped me.

Alistair Macleod once told me that if he managed to finish a single short story during an academic year, he considered that great because most of his writing was done after the academic year at his summer home on Cape Breton Island.

I did find though that there were times when I managed to write poems that emerged out of writing-centered discussions in the classroom. As well, when I taught Creative Writing classes and the students were writing, I also would write, occasionally generating work that found its way home and into my poetry folders for later rewriting.

Having been a teacher and writer all these years, Sorestad witnessed the arc, where poetry may have changed from “calling” to “career” as more and more students have studied writing as an academic discipline. Now we have formalism and a technique focused criticism. Is this good for poetry or does it remove it to the ivory towers where it is not as generally accessible or as vital? He answers:

There is a certain element of the double-edged sword in the 20th century’s phenomenon of “writing factories” and their churning out of writers, graduating into an apparently shrinking market place for writing. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that having more writers is a negative thing. Having more people writing poetry should be seen as encouraging.

However, there is some tendency for these writing factories to turn out academics more interested in finding a position teaching writing than in the actual writing itself. As well, there may be a tendency for the writers coming out of a particular writing school to reflect the academic bent or writing biases of the faculty of that school and to perpetuate this approach to writing wherever they assume faculty positions. I have some concern that writers groomed in academic writing programs are being removed more and more from the ordinary poetry reader, however we might define such a beast, or if indeed there are any such persons left, so that poetry eventually becomes academically-motivated poets writing for other academic poets. In fact, there may already exist an overall sense or feeling within the greater public that poetry has become a form of reading for only a select audience that does not include themselves. One might make a solid argument that contemporary poetry has already become inaccessible to most readers and this, from my perspective, is a tragedy.

Academization of our literature is only one of many new challenges. Recently, writers have faced explicit hostility from our governments at both the federal and provincial level. This attitude perpetuates the privileged position of academics working inside the sphere of entitlement. Our government has honoured Glen Sorestad, but he can’t fail to have missed that cultural starvation has recently been legislated from the top down. Like Seamus Heaney who said that a poet’s job is to help us endure, a process well known to cultural workers who accept that adversity is the norm for creative artists, he writes:

One thing I have come to believe is this: no matter how hostile the political climate of the day, no government will successfully kill literary publishing in this or any country. Literature will triumph over the most insidious forms of government, just as it always has. And just as long as there are writers to write and readers who want and are able to read. Heaney is right, of course. As was Faulkner, who avowed a similar responsibility. Writers and publishers work together towards that end of helping humanity endure.

Another head of the serpent is the proliferation of writing competitions, which swell the hungry coffers of literary magazines and the heads of successful candidates. Sorestad has strong opinions about the reduction of poetry to business. When some poets are singled out for honours, does it exalt the calling?

I am adamantly non-competitive when it comes to poetry and I have always been extremely uneasy with the persistence of poetry competitions that treat poems as if they were fruit or vegetables to be judged for ribbons at the fall fair. I know there are all sorts of good reasons for poetry competitions and the deplorable fact of poets’ lives is that these competitions offer one of the few potential sources of income there are for poets. However, I have avoided them on principle and continue to do so.

Honours granted to poets are a form of recognition both to the poet as an individual and to all poets and poetry. This is especially true of the naming of Poets Laureate. Most honours represent recognition of a lifetime or considerable body of poetry as opposed to an individual poem singled out from a host of other poems. If this were a perfect world, there would be far more kinds of recognition of significant poetic careers here in Canada. There would be poets laureate in every province, in every city; there would be honorary poetry chairs in every university. And there would be reasonable recompense attached to these positions. Do you realize that in Norway, writers who have achieved notable publishing records may be granted annual living stipends for life? I know this as fact because my Norwegian poet colleague, Arne Ruste, received this lifetime grant several years ago. In Canada the equivalent would be like having a senior writing grant every year for the rest of your life.

One of the intangible perks of getting older, of surviving employment and child-raising, is that alongside certain lamentable physical restrictions comes a greater freedom of the mind. Sorestad celebrates that luxury.

When I gave up teaching in 1981 I was certainly able to write more frequently than I did when I was in the classroom. But then the never-ending demands of running a small press began to eat into the writing time, until I finally had to give that up as well in 2000. So, now I’m free to write and I do. However, I can only say one thing with any certainty about this freedom. Since I have been able to devote myself solely to my writing, I revise and rewrite much more because now, at last, I have the time to do this. Hopefully, this results in poetry that is more complete, more honed. The question of quality is not mine to pass judgment on.

Another side of this question occurs to me. If a poet has no other responsibility but to write, the muse is there, the writer becomes prolific, is this necessarily a good thing? Surely the number of poems published is not the measure of the poet, or are we simply word-birders with life lists?

what we miss is a mature book, the circle of birth copulation and death completed and assessed with a certain objectivity. Unlike a younger romantic poet, Sorestad steps back as if from a house with lights on at night and looks in the windows without regret. This is the natural order of things.

In some ways, his title is a paradox. The mature poet misses nothing, because even as memory fades, the images endure in poems that capture a time and place that might otherwise be lost.
Sorestad is of the generation that moved from survival to civility, or so we thought. These poems are saturated with the unspoken irony of progress that only takes us to the realization of what we have left behind, the innocence of before. He celebrates the patterns of bird migration and the silence of snow. Silence, the new luxury, is felt between lines as spare as an economy of wings.
In the beginning “when he dreamed of flying” and in the end, there is death, as a “child is consigned to cold and dimming light,” and renewal – maybe. Gently, a man whose ancestors lived in harmony with the life cycles of the earth reminds us that we are out of sync with its rhythms.

When asked about the poet’s public responsibility to adjust those rhythms, he responded:

I have never spent much time concerning myself with what may or may not be considered to be the public responsibility of the poet, other than to write poems. I see my only responsibility as a poet as telling the truth. I have always believed that poetry is an intensely private act/art in which the poet through language seeks to explore and convey to the reader the ever-changing and chaotic world that whirls about him or her in an attempt to gain a measure of understanding, some way of coming to terms with the unthinkable, unspeakable and the bizarre that is our world, while at the same time not losing sight of the beauty that still exists within the violence and terror around us.

The poet shares with readers whatever insights he or she may experience. If I am being honest with myself in these poetic explorations and ponderings, then I am satisfied that I owe society nothing more.

I suppose I am a public poet because I assume, when I am writing, that I am writing for a reader, eventually. But not all of what I write will become public, of course. Some poems are not good enough and many disappear, never to be seen again, not even in my archives. A few poems, written in a pique of imagined injury, or personal disenchantment with someone, seldom survive beyond the first draft. These are destroyed and forgotten¸ simply because I don’t believe in poetry as a weapon to be used against others. Thankfully, I can honestly say that most of the poems that have fallen by the wayside are failed poems for various reasons that doomed them to the trash basket or the delete bin.

Ideally the aging brain deletes what it does not need and selects what is important for archival importance. Along the road to forgetting and perhaps invisibility as a man and a species, Sorestad celebrates the phenomenal world full of sensory delight, the rich scents of a barn in winter,

a dense living presence that left
with you and held like new skin.

Each poem is skin, torn from a wound that is healed by words and the memory of healing. Every moment is an ending from which there is no return, as in leaving a house where a family was raised, but it is also a beginning.

We pulled the door shut and heard the lock
fall into place one last time. Silence
in our triple decade wake,
the unrecoverable and unseen.

Even though this book has an elegiac tone, there is hope in the locus of a circle that joins husband and wife, parent and child, animal and human.

In his dreams a towering
bear glistens, a green giant
beneath a brilliant moon,
head tilted at the stars
as it moves, first on one foot,
then the other, its huge
body a marvel of dancing lines.

This is the joy of being, plainsong that transcends the present climate of poetry with its discussions of form and content, with its emphasis on winning. It is what it is, the voice of a rational man whose quiet and passionate voice rings with truth.

Victoria Poet Laureate Linda Rogers’ most recent book is Muscle Memory from Ekstasis Editions.