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We Miss: Linda Rogers talks to Glen Sorestad
about his new book and his life in poetry
what we miss
Thistledown Press, 2010
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
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:
One part of
he remembers by the doors.
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.
entered from the street,
all smiles and laughter.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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.
about the poet’s public responsibility to adjust those rhythms,
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 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.
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.
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
the door shut and heard the lock
fall into place one last time. Silence
in our triple decade wake,
the unrecoverable and unseen.
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
In his dreams
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.
Poet Laureate Linda Rogers’ most recent book is Muscle Memory
from Ekstasis Editions.