Friesen explores life of Crazy Bone in new long poem

Patrick Friesen is an award-winning author, formerly from Winnipeg, now living in Victoria. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1998 and 2003 and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in Manitoba in 1996 and the ReLit Award for Poetry in 2012. He adapted his book The Shunning for stage; it premiered at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985 and was performed in 2011 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. He has also collaborated with various musicians, choreographers and dancers and recorded two CDs of text and improv music. Friesen will present his new collection, A Short History of Crazy Bone, on April 23 at Russell Books in Victoria. Recently Friesen answered Cornelia Hoogland’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

In awarding you the P.K. Page Founders’ Award for Poetry in 2012, John Steffler wrote “Friesen’s ‘storm windows’ seems to me to go an extra step in conjuring up and offering an experience of poetry’s ability to transform consciousness, alter perception, and enlarge our awareness of ourselves, our lives, and our world.” Trusting you had similar goals in writing A Short History of Crazy Bone please talk about the ways in which writing the long poem enabled you to enlarge your own awareness of your character/narrator Crazy Bone.

My great-grandmother Anna is where Crazy Bone began. Anna was a trickster and someone who crossed community borders and became an outcast. I have written her into other work, including one of my plays. In carrying the shadow, a book published in 1999, I included a middle-aged woman, dressed a certain way, wandering the countryside. Maggie Nagle, who had acted in my first play The Shunning, wrote me and wondered whether I would consider writing a monologue based on this woman. Some five years later I began writing a series of poems fusing this woman with Anna. After I had completed about half the poems I shifted to a monologue, finished that, began a two-hander with Crazy Bone, and then returned to finish the poems. That’s how the process worked, somewhat simplified. The character took on a life of her own as fiction. I also found myself entering the character and engaging in my own thinking process. So, in a way, Crazy Bone is a combination of certain aspects of Anna, of the woman in the previous book, and my own thinking process. There were other influences as well.

What are your aesthetic concerns around writing the long poem? What formalities or restrictions did you place upon yourself? Do the conventions of the long poem allow for greater inspiration, and do they more deeply release, rather than limit, your subject?

I’ve often written in couplets, particularly when I’m writing short-lined poems. This is the primary restriction I placed on this long poem. I also chose to use a pared-down, simple language to suit the character Crazy Bone. From the first poem on I knew I would be working with two voices, Crazy Bone’s voice and an objective, observer’s voice. The rhythms of these two voices changed as I went along. The observer’s voice tends to dominate the first half of the book, but Crazy Bone takes over in the second half. I think this happened because I found myself getting more and more comfortable in Crazy’s voice/thinking and what she was thinking and saying became more important than what she was doing. I’ve written other long poems which were one continuous development. This book doesn’t work that way. It works in fragments (which I’ve also done before in different contexts), fragmentary comments by Crazy for example. Each separate poem is part of the long poem but can probably stand on its own as well.

I see the separate poems within this long poem as flashes of thinking. Not completed, worked-out thoughts, but momentary hummingbird flashes. When you put these together you can begin to see a development, a continuity not based on a systematic workout, but an accumulation of moments in a life.

Writing the long poem can be understood as an extension of a main idea, for instance, in a lyric poem. In A Short History of Crazy Bone, I see you moving your idea/originating impulse into different contexts and making that idea/impulse respond to different voices. Where does that focus lead? Am I correct in seeing the shape of this long poem as the shape of a mind inventing itself? Is that what it’s about? A short history of the mind’s work of invention?

Yes, in a way this long poem is a mind shaping itself, or revealing its shape, a shape the character doesn’t consciously know until experience fused with language reveals it. A friend wondered about the title of the book suggesting that, in fact, this was not really a “history.” True enough, if history means a coherent series of events. It is, though, a history of a mind. Within that there are other histories, fragments of cultural history for example. There is no plot in this book, but there is a subplot. Crazy is wandering about through fields and bush; she alludes to a former lover, but this story is never completed. She has five stones she wants to return to their original place. But it’s a vague mission, and she is not truly driven by it. It may be the excuse for her starting out on this journey of her mind.

What are the contingencies that Crazy Bone meets in her travels? Would you say that the contingencies (such as admonishing voices, or her clothing and other props) are a way of working through the same idea via different metaphors?

There are no real barriers for Crazy. Her mind is like a river flowing. If there is a stone, it flows around it. She has no particular expectations of her mind, she just lets it move. This is the motion of the book, the movement of a relatively unfettered mind. She also moves physically, not just in walking, but in occasional flamenco and butoh movements. This is a mind/body moving through space.

What tensions are you creating with third and first person voices? Does switching back and forth allow you to modulate your distance from the poem as you reveal more or less intimate truths? Even within a poem in first person, hierarchical positioning is playfully undermined, and Crazy Bone lifts off the page, far beyond the clutches of those who would disparage her. For instance, in poem 60 Crazy Bone says (and I do want to end this interview with Crazy Bone speaking),

they said dancing led to pregnancy
they were right

I have given birth
a thousand times

shame on you
they said

and I ate their shame

Crazy Bone is a gentle anarchist (well, she expresses the desire to build a house in order to burn it down, which isn’t all that gentle). She thinks in contradictory terms, is not impressed by hierarchy or wealth or status. She sees the idiocy of human pretension, and she sees existence as shot through with humour. The third person voice establishes setting, suggests Crazy’s physical movement through space, some of her actions. As in a play, this gives us a context for Crazy’s voice, the motion of her mind. Whatever judgments community wants to place on Crazy she shakes them off. Mostly she doesn’t bother engaging in battle with community, rather community is irrelevant. She accepts their judgments sometimes. Why not? The judgments are ridiculous and not worth countering.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Deep Bay,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death.