Lorna Crozier talks about love, art and the dead

Lorna Crozier is the award-winning author of 15 previous books of poetry, including Small Mechanics, The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems, and Whetstone. She is also the author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things and the memoir Small Beneath the Sky. Crozier is a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she has received four honorary doctorates for her contributions to Canadian literature. Born in Swift Current, she now lives on Vancouver Island. Crozier recently discussed her new book of poems, The Wrong Cat (McLelland & Stewart), with Cornelia Hoogland for The Coastal Spectator.

In a recent interview with Doug Dirks on CBC’s The Homestretch you recounted the story of the poem that became the title poem of the book. Your radio account of a personal event is written in third person in your book, as are most of the poems in The Wrong Cat. What does third person enable, and why not first person?

I chose to write many of the poems in The Wrong Cat in third person because I saw those particular pieces as mini-novels. There are characters, a narrative arc, conflict, dialogue, a setting and a resolution. Although some of the details are autobiographical such as the ending of the title poem, which comes from something my husband Patrick said out loud at a dinner party, the man and woman featured in the poems are fictionalized versions of “real” people. I had a lot of fun writing these and when someone asks me why I don’t write a novel, I’m now going to reply, “I already have.”

Alternately, “Man From Elsewhere,” written in first person, reads like fiction (in the sense of imaginative narration or myth), and packs an emotional and sensual wallop. Such seeming contrasts make me want to understand how you approach “person” as a tool to create, intensify, sustain, and/or subvert the content of your poems.

I started the “Man from Elsewhere” sequence in order to challenge myself. The inspiring question was “How do you write a love poem in a new way?” Before Shakespeare, let alone after, the English language is rich with poems about adoration, heartbreak and loss. What I tried to do was marry my interest in the topic and the form with my fascination with how place influences character. If I’d been born in a landscape different from the dry, light-bombarded grasslands of southwest Saskatchewan, I’d be a different person than I am now, even though I’ve lived on the Rain Coast for over 25 years. The geography, the light, the weather has shaped who I am, how I love and how I deal with loss. Those concerns feel lyrical to me, though the story insists on being there, particularly in the poems that allude to myths, as a kind of undercurrent. The poems are a cry from the heart.

A number of the poems use long line lengths without (I think) becoming prose poems. It’s very hard to resist a compelling enjambment, or is something else at work here?

I explored the prose poem in both my memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, where they work as a kind of punctuation between the prose chapters, and in my last book, The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. In the latter, what I was interested in was the possibilities of the short, lyrical essay. The pieces with long lines in this new book are definitely not prose poems. The structural unit is not the sentence, but the line. The problem for me was not resisting enjambment but maintaining an extended line that doesn’t go slack, that doesn’t sag near the middle. I think I chose this longer reach, which I hope retains its tension and its music, because of the fictional nature of the poems. They come close to prose but they aren’t, that is, if I succeeded. They do a dance between prose and the lyric line.

Lorna, since 1981 and your book, No Longer Two People, co-written with Patrick Lane, your books have included poems that can be read as a celebration of your relationship with Patrick. While you are praised for your animal and vegetable imagery, it’s your playful, sexy, perennial love that I’ve counted on over the course of many books. What is it like to unearth relational uncertainties and foibles, and then shape them into craft? How would you talk about the art of writing one’s intimate relationship?

So much of what I write comes out of my life, my day-to-day experiences with the person who is closest to me, my husband Patrick, whom I’ve been with since 1978. My poems plot a relationship that began when I was thirty and will continue, with any luck, until one of us dies of old age. Even then, for the one who is left, the “marriage” will not end. My poems come from my imaginings, my suppositions, my desires for a better world, but they also come from autobiography, the deepest kind, the daily being-here that sends a tap root from the ground I stand upon into the subconscious stream that flows through our lives and connects us. I have in my mind, too, Evan Boland’s quote, “I want a poem I can grow old in.” How does love change, what does it mean as we age into bodies that betray us in strange, sometimes sad, sometimes funny ways. I’d like to find poems that can hold how we move through life and love, the everyday and the eternal. What remains of desire and passion as we get closer and closer to death? A lot, I hope. How do we find words for it, then?

The dead have always inhabited your poetry, and in poems such as “The Pony” in The Wrong Cat, death appears as an external character. James Hillman has said the dead want us to complete the unfinished aspects of their lives. Do you agree? What do your dead want from you?

Especially for poets, the dead still inhabit the earth. Perhaps they’re the silence where poems begin; perhaps they’re the pause between the lines, the stutter, the lost words. It’s not that the dead want to talk to us, but we want to talk with them. People like my mother and father are rare in literature. Something in me wants to find a place for them in language between the covers of a book. They will live there, then, as they live in me. Poems become prayers to the invisible, to the lost. They’re one way of keeping that near.

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, “Incident Light/Incident Dark,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death.