Renowned poet Patrick Lane will launch his new book of poetry, Washita, at Open Space in Victoria on Nov. 2, 2014 at 7 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by Planet Earth Poetry. Lane recently took time from his writing schedule to talk with Lynne Van Luven about the sere surprises of his most recent poems, which he began to type slowly following a frozen-shoulder injury. In 2011, Lane published his impressive Collected Poems with Harbour Publishing, who also released Washita. Lane, an Officer of the Order of Canada, has won numerous literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
Patrick, I’m intrigued by the title of your new collection. Some plains folks might recognize Washita as the Oklahoma river where Custer massacred the Cheyenne in 1868, but your focus with these poems is much wider and yet more particular. Can you talk a little about how the image of the Washita stone, a white quartz used for grinding and sharpening, signals your approach to language these days?
My father had a Washita sharpening stone in a narrow box. As a child I knew he treasured it, the stone somehow associated in my mind with being a man, the stone taken out by him to make an edge on a hunting knife, a chisel, objects that I wasn’t allowed to touch. It became then a talisman to me, a kind of holy ‘man’ object, and thus my vision of the future, captured as it was by his being in the war as well as him being a rodeo cowboy. Images of childhood, all kinds of holiness or unholiness depending on the view. The Washita symbol as representing the poems in the book…yes, the lines and images, the rhetorical flourishes however muted, all simple metaphors. Manliness, yes, something rarely spoken of in these new bright dark ages.
Is it correct to say you are trying an ever-more sere style in these poems? Your tone to me seems always reflective, but here you are relying more on end-stopped and shorter lines. Does your continued struggle with vision, as well as the earlier frozen shoulder, contribute to this writing form?
It began the form, the writing with my left forefinger after my right arm and shoulder broke down from writing a novel on top of a novel, the former given up on entirely. The lines became compete sentences, end-stopped mostly with periods, though commas occasionally held them together. The slowness of the letters forming words with a typing finger, a right-brain, neither knowing where the keys were. So, a form, yes, however serendipitous, because when it began to evolve I began to explore its possibilities, the leaps between lines, the conjunctions of thought stressed to breaking points.
Yes, I like that. Breaking points.
Your many references to Japanese culture in such poems as “Hiragana,” referencing the feminine brush strokes in Japanese calligraphy, seem to echo the simplicity you are reaching for in your own work. How does being – as I have heard you called – an “elder statesman” poet play into these approaches?
Elder? Yes, that too, advancing age. I was reading Confucius, his, “At seventy I followed my heart…” and I was seventy-one, following, willy-nilly, my heart. A man grows old in thought as much as deed, the imagination reduced to simple things, a tree frog the cat brought in this morning and offered to me, the tiny drum on its throat beating, exhausted by long effort and song, a sound made to draw a maiden and bringing instead the Minotaur. Japan? I love its OCD culture, the monk I saw at dawn at Ryoanji in Kyoto on his knees plucking pine needles from the moss. I too, OCD as I am, bring to language that same desire for order. Also, the words, iki, sunyata, uguisubai, sabi, words that express a presence in the human word that we require a paragraph to express. Thus the glossary at the end of the book. I have long admired Asian poetry, Japanese and Chinese poetry, since reading Kenneth Rexroth’s early translations in the early ’60s, and, of course, Waley’s earlier work.
Other writers, such as Albert Camus and Jack Gilbert, also create echoes in your poems. Can you reflect a little about how reading poetry from all over the world has shaped your own writing over the years?
I read a Penguin anthology of European poetry back in the early ’60s that left me quite shaken. Back then, there were almost no translations available in the outposts of the B.C. Interior, let alone the wilderness of barbaric Vancouver. The European forms didn’t shape my poetry so much as their perceptions of suffering, their witnessing the world, given the poetry covered a Europe of two great wars, their poets reporting back, [Austrian Expressionist Georg] Trakl and the rest. I loved German and Russian poetry. When I got to know [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko in Vancouver, our conversations ranged through my ignorance of his voice, his damnation.
To me, “The Ecstasy of No” is both a marvelous phrase and a wonderful poem. And yet in North America, we are beset with endless – and therefore mostly meaningless – words and images. Do writers need to protect themselves against that excess in order to keep their creative voice alive, their vision authentic?
I work daily on the word ‘no.’ No longer wish to travel, no longer wish to be distracted by humanity in its yearning for the destruction of all things, the desecration of all things. The poem “Off Valparaiso” reflects my waking in the night and weeping at the dream I had of the whales, Moby Dick, the ancient art of death, the song of the three-year voyages to fill barrels with whale-oil for the lamps that lighted the declarations of war, the pitiful please for peace. The distances between the words “the” and “blue” and “heron,” are huge and unimaginable.