John Pass, Writer


Writer John Pass

John Pass has published six books of poetry and several more chapbooks. Although for the past several years he has lived on the Sunshine Coast, B.C. with his wife, author and novelist Theresa Kishkan, John also regularly gives readings across North America and Europe. He has won several awards for his poetry, including Stumbling in the Bloom, which won the 2006 Governor General’s Award. His most recent book is Crawlspace (2011, Harbour Publishing).  Together with Theresa Kishkan, they run High Ground Press, specializing in the letterpress printing and publication of poetry broadsheets.

1. The power of orality in Homeric tradition has been mined by many poets—  Whitman, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson—with an attempt to apply it to our very visual and print-dominated society.  The poet speaks the poetry. It’s funny that often those poets turn out to be bad readers of their own poetry. Is that a strong idea for you?  As far as creative process goes, do you talk to yourself as you compose—much like a musician?

Yes, I do talk to myself when writing, the sound and rhythm and cadence often dictating revisions to word choice and versification.  Recently at the Whitehorse Poetry Festival an audience member asked me about the musicality of my poems, a question related to yours, and I replied that I think it must have come from an early love of Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Browning, Frost.  I’m imprinted with their music and although I’ve written very little formal verse (one sonnet and a couple of haiku come to mind) I’ve very attracted to chiming in poems, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, echoes, puns, even (utterly unfashionable in the last century but recently popular again with the rappers & co.) alliteration.  I don’t feel a poem’s wholeness unless there’s music in it, will only with great reluctance read “prose poems.” What’s the point?  Write poetic prose if that’s what you want, but don’t call paragraphs poems. Lines and stanzas are code for rhythm and emphasis, perspective, shifts in meaning. They also reflect spatially the thought processes in composition, are a map of the poem’s ground/grounding, an imprint of language’s struggle towards physical life, its struggle to be born (beyond its conceptual nature) into the world of things. Form is a gesture towards how a poem should be sounded, spoken, sung.  Last week a friend wrote to say that she’d liked a poem I’d sent her for the “ghost of form” in it.  I like that, that I might in my maturity be managing something of what I believe Pound meant when he implored poets to write in the form of the musical phrase, not the metronome.

My own poems speak to me most when I read them aloud, though I think it’s crucial to give an audience hearing poems for the first time some footing, a possible pathway, through a piece I’m reading. Hopefully then an oral reading will offer enough shared meaning, contact, along with enough compelling mystery and allure, to encourage re-reading, to make a reader out of the listener.

2. Critically, beauty has been scorned for a number of reasons since the 1980s. The idea of a decorative, almost ornamental language was repugnant to some—even just the mistaken appearance of it.  Some associated the love of beauty in language with the bardic pose—as in Dylan Thomas—and all that the pose brought. So Ted Hughes was rejected by some for those reasons, perhaps unfairly. A kind of hypermasculinity, possible sexism, eurocentrism: do you accept any of that?

The fundamental issue re beauty is not its use in language but its presence in the world, in our lives.  It seems to me it is very much a part of most people’s experience, paradoxically (if it’s understood as decorative or ornamental superfluity) as a part of extreme, even tragic, experience.  Survival stories, for example, almost always relate experienced instances of shearing, heart-rending beauty. So I don’t have much time for contemp. notions about the end of beauty, sister notion to the end of history, the end of nature, etc., unless we’re talking (as to some degree we are and must) about the end of our species. Until then I guess I’ll hold to a Platonic, Keatsian philosophical/aesthetic point of view, that Beauty is as fundamental to human experience and to culture, civilization, as those other Platonic virtues: Truth, Justice . . .  They are all, in fact, inseparable, as Keats’ brilliant conflation (the HEART of Romanticism) indicates.  That “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” seemed stunningly obvious to me from the moment I first read it and I’m frequently confounded at how difficult a concept it is for many.  I had a Romantic Poetry prof who found it embarrassing, a philosophical nullity, patent nonsense in fact!  And the twentieth century would seem to be in his corner, dismissing Romantics as, at best, pure-hearted idealists, at worst, candy-assed dilettantes. To my mind Romanticism manages (though much debased in pop-culture and the simplifications of environmental discourse) to meld the best of the Classical and Christian world-views: the bringing of personal response, responsibility (such as Christ’s) to the multi-faceted, classically sacred world of natural locales and phenomena, social occasions, human action and states of mind.  Beauty is a serious business, not to be trifled with, sometimes to be rowed away from with the utmost haste, as Wordsworth does in the Prelude. Its appearance in our lives, a deep experience of it, is akin to being visited by a god, Christian or pagan: that is, it’s the burning wick of love, life, death, consciousness.  How could poetry be profound or important without it?  What’s true without it?

 3. Poetry—in its contemporary understanding—should be conceptually rigorous and almost always ironic (the latter a pomo idea). But what about the natural connection to the world of feeling and that the world of feeling is itself connected to Nature? A tricky highwire act. How do you manage the balancing act in a culture that downgrades the lyric for example to historical selection unless you can also make fun of your inspiration or show its deficiencies?

Irony is to late romanticism what gold fever is to late capitalism, a chimera of certainty, knowingness.  My strategy (because, of course, I often feel pretty ironic myself) is to resist finality in content and eschew finish formally (that “ghost of form” is as far as I’ll buff the product).  Interestingly the therapeutic community (where some like to find poetry’s only contemporary value) propagandizes at the other end of the spectrum seeking “closure”.   Somewhere in the middle, as the ancients knew, is where we live, in jeopardy it’s true (nothing new there) but emphatically and undeniably in a world of other things and beings that we must, to live at all, come to terms with, individually and endlessly “negotiate” with.  Poetry now (the poetry I admire and try to create) is in some respects a creature of negotiation, accommodation that endeavours to give things their appropriate place, size, voice.  It re-defines the poet’s (and hopefully an audience’s) ground by constantly re-imagining the world.  And given the spectacularly dominant and addictive contemp. modes of thought/media, you gotta laugh at that, at my (and poetry’s) arrogance or naivete!  Even the days when a prominent poet could declare (as WC Williams did) that “a poem is a proposition”, days when the art could still presume to a place at the table of human governance, are sadly passed.  But hey, that’s true of all the arts now, and of philosophy, and almost true of science, poetry’s old confreres . . .  technology and the business model alone hold sway.

4. The psychologist James Hillman speaks of art’s capacity (and here he includes poetry) for allure (his word). He enjoys the sensuousness of the engagement. Other people talk of being seduced by language. Allure and seduction—charged words! How do you see these in poetry today and specifically in your poetry?

Allure has always been a characteristic of poetry and seduction has always been a motive of poets, a clue I think as to why most of its practitioners historically have been male.  First the world, then the words, have to entrance the poet of course, so self-seduction without succumbing to blatant self-indulgence (a fault of a lot of post-modern work) is one of art’s complications: how to be true to the world and the self, and attract the beloved.  Well, truth WILL attract the beloved! Truth (see Keats above/below) personally come to and passionately articulated will, by definition (by default and in fact) be beautiful, alluring.  It’s a gift and a given.  I go with what I most deeply, truly want; that is, I go towards that as best I can in language. You’d have to ask readers of my poems to say when or whether my progress might be alluring . . .

5. You clearly reference Keats in your grappling with the understanding of Beauty. What about modern poets like Neruda and Rilke?  Or someone like Ted Hughes with his love of both mythology and immersion in Nature (at least in fishing)?

Rilke is magnificent, very Keatsian in his classical approaches, the burnished, emblematic stature and authority he recovers from fraught, existential struggle. His Sonnets to Orpheus are profoundly beautiful. I like Neruda especially in his lyrics, Twenty-one Love Songs and A Song of Despair, for example, where feeling pushes the imagery almost too far, towards symbolic (static)heights, but something holds him back, just inside the living world, the shared and recognizable, heart-broken, gorgeous, human world.  Hughes I like best in his more conversational/confessional work , the posthumously published Birthday Letters, for example.  Crow I never cared for, felt the mythology over-cooked, the nature red in tooth and claw stuff a little suspect, almost a pandering to jaded imagination, hungry for audience, the persona too much in evidence.

6. What’s your view of language poets? What about a postmodern poet like Anne Carson, whose work is often compared to language poets, even though she operates outside that approach? And Robin Blaser and his school.

If by “language poetry” you mean work that is essentially abstract, theoretical, “about” language primarily, I don’t care for it.  Life, not language is the ground of poetry and foregrounding language makes it all too easy to miss the boat entirely.  Language is, for almost everyone almost all the time, a referential tool.  To leave out that aspect of its nature is stupidly reductionist and pushes poetry ever further from audience, from our shared material world that it should (whatever else it’s doing) be astutely referencing. Some experimental work I enjoy for its wit, surprise, like a record skipping over and/or into categories un-guessed at.  Erin Moure is good at this and I enjoy some of her stuff.  Carson is fascinating in places, emotionally compelling.  I’m very much engaged sporadically but not entirely convinced. I’ll reserve judgement there.  Blaser was (by all accounts) a nice man and a good teacher with a spectacularly effective bardic (to use your term)persona and some alluring poetics.  His poetry doesn’t speak to me.

7. On the West Coast there have been several different approaches to poetry. There was Tish and then George Bowering, Robin Skelton and his Victoria cabal, Patrick Lane, Vancouver poets like Fred Wah and Roy Miki, poets associated with the Interior, like Barry McKinnon. Do you feel a kinship with any of them?

Sure, with all of them a little, except Miki who I haven’t met and whose work I don’t get at all.  They’re my contemporaries, in time and geography. But to explore this question would be a book-length exercise in anecdotes, and would have to include at least another dozen poets who occupy the same territory.  None of them have influenced my writing especially, though I’m sure I share influences with some of them: the New American and San Francisco Renaissance poets with Bowering, MacKinnon and Wah; a few Irish and UK poets with Skelton.  McKinnon and Bowering are the two from your list I’ve most enjoyed reading over the years; they’ve each done some work I admire, McKinnon’s The the, and Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies come to mind.

8. What contemporary poet is neglected these days?

What contemporary poet isn’t?

9. When do you tend to write: morning, midday, evening, middle of the night? Do you have other important preferences: writing longhand instead of keyboard, writing with a cup of tea, writing on a certain kind of paper? I don’t mean to trivialize this—it does sound fussy the way I’ve said it. I do know that an artist has tools, rituals, and materials that are important to him or her.

I write during the day, haven’t got up in the middle of the night to work on anything for years.  I take handwritten notes, usually brief: a phrase or intriguing image, a notion, a scrap of overheard conversation, a piece of pleasing nonsense. (An example of the last is a “title” I’ve had for a few years in a list of potential titles, Sayings of The Dolly Llama. I’ll likely never use that, but who knows . . . ) I take notes, nothing so formal or regular as a journal, then every few weeks or so I get hungry to pull something together into a poem and search out compelling connections, shapes, from the jottings.  At that point the process becomes mysterious to me.  I think groupings of speech, not quite lines or stanzas, begin to come and I carry them around in my head, mumble them to myself, trying things out.  When there are several of these groupings with some sense of order, a sense of which will precede or follow the others, maybe a larger shape or constellation of idea or pattern emerging, I go the computer and begin to type. Traces, seldom all, of the mullings get onto the page, and the poem finds itself over a period of hours or days, occasionally weeks, of re-visitation and tinkering.  This pattern has been more or less the same for decades.  It seems to make no difference how busy or quiet my days are; the pace has been pretty constant since the eighties, resulting in a book every five or six years.

10. The place where you have settled is the Sunshine Coast.  With your wife Theresa, you built your home, raised your kids, wrote poetry. All of that—from awareness of the particular geography, local myth, the rigors of farming and building, the growth of your family, has entered your work in a manner that makes it almost as site-specific as a sculpture even as it travels world-wide. Can you comment on that

I’ve never been a farmer.  I raise a few raspberries in a garden plot. I put in an orchard 30 years ago that is now pretty much surrendered to deer and bears.  I really wanted it more for atmosphere than fruit anyway. . .   And if local myth encompasses muscle-car culture in Pender Harbour (as it no doubt should) I can’t say I’ve fully delved its depths.  Building (nearly every aspect of constructing a house) has been crucial to my life and my writing.  I’ve loved the design, problem-solving, adapting of structure to landscape, cement work, carpentry, wiring, laying tile, just about all of it; even keeping up with it, the extension and renovation that comes with kids growing and then leaving, with aging, has been a pleasure, and very instructive (in many instances actual subject and structure) in my poetry.  Poet as maker is an old concept of course and a true one; the work to make words fit the world is strikingly akin to the discipline of physical labour/skill.  “Heart and skill” Ondaatje says somewhere.  That’s it.  That dance and balance, that feel for making a saw-cut on one or the other side of the pencil line, that feel for a phrase that’s clear description, bare fact and true to real speech and real emotion. All worthy human work hones to this fine edge, and all art theory worth reading does too: Coleridge’s distinction for example between fancy and the imagination is an essential angle in poetry’s miter-box.

11. Both you and your wife are professional writers—and parents. Has that been a difficult act to balance? You’ve raised three kids to adulthood, and they each sound quite amazing. Theresa has several published books to her name. You held down a fulltime teaching job for years and came out with about 16 books in total. How have you balanced it? Do you take Mondays and she takes Tuesdays, that kind of thing?

I haven’t found my life difficult to balance; marriage, kids, teaching, writing . . .  all on the whole have been rich and rewarding.  If there’s a trick to maintaining that perspective it’s been embrace, seeing and celebrating the connections, staying with, coming back to, what is.  Maybe this is the place for me to make the important point that while I’m a Romantic to considerable degree in aesthetic/philosophic terms, I’m not “romantic” when it comes to day-to-day living, life-skills, survival; that is, Theresa and I are very practical people.  I had a job that paid well enough to allow us to build our house mortgage-free (if we did it ourselves, on rural property, over several years) and live comfortably on a single income.  She was happier, she assures me, staying home with the kids, making quilts and jam and superb meals, writing marvelous books, than she would have been pursuing a career outside, certainly happier than she would have been working the low-paying, unrewarding jobs readily available locally for the sake of modestly supplementing our income.  Things fell into place; we shared a lot of tasks and took on individually those that we were individually most taken with. I don’t quilt but she uses my carpentry square to make fabric squares. I pick and freeze the raspberry crop but she makes that delicious raspberry mousse for winter dinner-parties.

12. Country poets, rural poets: John Clare, Robert Bly, Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Gabriela Mistral, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Robert Hass, Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, one could go on. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but all these poets have lived rurally and write about nature and rural issues. But some, like Louise Gluck and Annie Dillard, are really urban poets writing about nature. Is there a difference—given sincerity and talent—between a mainly urban poet and his take on Nature and a rural poet and his view of nature? And how would you see yourself? I see that most of the support for poets comes in the cities, where money and cultural power are centralized. Some country poets are lumped together with folk poets and kept out of the canon.

I think the rural/urban distinction as you make it here, based on where a poet lives, is irrelevant to poetry.  We all live within “nature”; cities are “natural” insofar as they are outgrowths, accretions of the human organism’s social behavior.  Berry’s essays on agricultural policy and Snyder’s political work are as relevant to urbanites as they are to people living in rural areas and their poetry speaks to anyone who cares to read it.  Many, likely most, of their readers are living urban lives, in universities. It’s true that poets are grouped/lumped together or separately for all sorts of spurious reasons, and that there’s a simplistic bias towards urban life generally in our culture, a delusion of sophistication in cities.  I remember a pet distinction of over-heated sixties dialectic was between “political” and “domestic” poets.  Where would they put Bly?!  Good poetry spans the categories and the geographies.  I can’t think of a single significant “urban” poet (from Shakespeare to Jorie Graham) who doesn’t engage living things or “natural” processes in a poem somewhere, nor a significant “rural/nature” poet (from Whitman to Don McKay) whose concerns don’t encompass cities.  In terms of subject matter, if we go to basics, cities depend upon the land.  What we eat grows somewhere; what we read and think might best grow in that context if we’re wanting a sane, balanced world-view.  In personal terms I write out of a particular place and experience, so my imagery and “subject-matter” will reflect that.  I use quotes on subject-matter there because poetry is NOT principally issue-based, not journalism (our times’ dominant genre).  It is not principally “about” anything, but seeks to transmit experience whole, share the world(s) we inhabit. I see myself, hopefully, everywhere . . .

13. Small publishing houses like Oolichan Books, Anansi, and Harbour have been among your publishers. These almost always depend on Canada Council grants to produce the books. How do you see the role of these small publishers in Canadian cultural life? Do you foresee a future for poetry? Will we see kindle books for poetry?

I’ve never published with Anansi, but Coach House (with the original “Press,” not the current “Books” moniker) and Talon, as well as Oolichan and Harbour, have published me.  I prefer the term “literary” to “small” publisher but in the case of Harbour, for example, which has published more books of mine (3) than any other house, neither term is quite correct.  Harbour is BC’s second largest publisher and its focus is more regional than literary.  Without publishers like it, those you mention and maybe a dozen more, poetry books by Canadian poets wouldn’t exist. They have been my generation’s response to finding a place for the art, however marginal, in our culture.  I don’t know what’s next, but I doubt that kindle and ebooks will give poetry more than a passing glance, as they’re creatures of the business model and economies of scale.  Maybe poetry’s future will be in niche publishing, letterpress editions for elite collectors.  Poetry’s values are more in keeping with fine-art production processes than with electronic forms of speed/saturation marketing.  It will have a life (as it always has) but may be entering a dark(er)-age in terms of availability.  I think the recent (but now dying) enthusiasm for lit. theory and poetics was in part a strategy to keep poetry in the academy.  But that’s not its true home, nor is the tribal pop-culture rap and performance world.  As a product of the individual imagination poetry’s in the jeopardy individuals experience in any culture, especially now in corporate culture.  But (coming back to the obvious, to basics) we are individuals.  One way or another individuals will find expression in language that mirrors and struggles to share that reality.  Poetry does that in depth better than any other medium I know. Music, dance, fine-art are all capable of profound sensory engagement but poetry has the greatest capacity for intimacy across the spectrum of the senses and consciousness .

14. One of your poetic projects has been to source the Christian, Classical, Renaissance, Romantic traditions for the ways they have informed our thought. Do you see this as a way of helping to preserve these traditions even though this might not be the intent of the poem?  So many readers today—particularly younger readers—know nothing of the Old Testament, of Greek or Roman Mythology, of the Grimm’s fairy tales, of history. It must be difficult to reach those readers. Yet if they are struck by one of your poems, they might be enticed to learning more. THE HOUR’S ACROPOLIS, and STUMBLING IN THE BLOOM come to mind in this way. For example, “Of Plants” in THE HOUR’S ACROPOLIS has this wonderful sense of our indebtedness to the plants and trees around us, to the place we live in, even what could be called just the weeds, and some of them flora from faraway ecosytems—all of it mixed together with working on the land, using the wood, reading poetry and being aware of British cultural traditions. I like the way classical myths are right there (Narcissus) not just in remembrance and metaphor but right there because you’re experiencing them the way Ovid or some other poet experienced them on Greek and Roman soil—except that it’s in a British Columbian rain forest. All growing. Your sons’ first pumpkins. And I know the excitement of first pumpkins. What’s contained in “grew” is quite thought-provoking. And when you say, recently,  “. . . there is no basement to the condo. /No Freudian crawlspace, Perls in the attic”  (CRAWLSPACE) you seem to be looking at your generation askance.  Surrounded with plenty, we’re still left with less. Even the phrase about the Freudian crawlspace has a tinge of regret to it. After all, Freud was more interesting for poets and artists of all kinds, though he may not have provided the psychological liberation people were looking for. Some received the release from Fritz Perls’ school of gestalt therapy, though there has not been the degree of influence or insight attributed to his work. So here you are referencing modern psychology, but in a way that still allows us to examine our common experience. Is that right or am I completely off?

Well, I hadn’t thought of my work contributing to the preservation of tradition, but if it does, great.  I try to have as wide a perspective (anchored with true and telling particulars) as possible.  It’s a big world out there.  One has to do justice to as much of it as one perceives one can.  That goes for the past too, a particularly neglected region in now/me culture but we literally can’t LIVE outside it, it’s as much a part of our ground as the ground itself.  The present is the past the instant it’s brought to mind.  In this circumstance, as WC Williams said, “only the imagination is real,” and definitions of poetry from Wordsworth’s “recollections in tranquility” to Rilke’s “singing (or drift) in the god. A wind,” to Jack Spicer’s radio signals all speak to the adamantine, out-of-time, otherness of the experience of writing or reading a good poem.  Poems are not sites of solace merely, not merely places of entertainment, nor escapist hide-outs . . .   poetry’s contemplative immediacy is, or can be, home. And elegy is that home’s muzak. “How shall the heart be reconciled/ to its feast of losses?” asks Stanley Kunitz in his poem, ‘The Layers’.  The answer: “a nimbus- clouded voice/directed me:/ ‘Live in the layers,/ not on the litter’”… “grew” in my ‘Of Plants’ goes to the layers I hope, and rings that elegiac note from its compost.

Psychology now is drug-culture, not the human/humane/conversational/relational culture evident in the larger, language-based practices of the last century.  That’s a distinct loss. Not for a minute do I mean to suggest that we shouldn’t use pharmaceutical intervention to alleviate suffering. But there’s more at stake here than treatment.  The connectivity of language, its capacity to widen imagination, the spaciousness it gives to thought, cannot be over-estimated. If we are going to stay in touch with each other, touch each other, have a world to share, we have to keep talking, personally; erasing that practice, or neglecting its history, in any discipline damages the culture as a whole.

15. The realizations in the books give the feeling of being hard-won—not merely aesthetic insights. Though some people have associated you with Robert Creeley, I think more of William Stafford and Seamus Heaney in terms of sensibility—with perhaps more drive to accept beauty within the harshness of life.

I thank you for crediting me with hard-won realizations but I think they are so only insofar as the practice of any art worth pursuing is demanding. As far as aesthetics go I’m not aware of possessing fundamental intentions or drive beyond being as comprehensively true as I can be to my life, in language.  That’s the best summary I can make of my motivation.  Somehow, for some reason, I took on this responsibility (in terms maybe of that sixties saw about responsibility being “the ability to respond”) and it has given me infinitely more than it has cost in effort or frustration. Creeley, Stafford, Heaney: it’s an honour to be named in their company.  Thanks for that too!

16. Many poets today are the products of MFA creative writing programs. You don’t come with that pedigree, but clearly you have been successful and have a keen knowledge of both craft and poetic traditions. What do you tell young people wanting to know whether they should pursue the MFA

I always ask anyone expressing interest in becoming a writer the same question: what are you reading?  From that, everything else (including whatever the would-be writer is writing) follows; it opens into a person’s engagement with language in all respects.  I know good poets who have pursued MFA’s and good poets who haven’t. The programs seem about as useful to prospective writers as pursuing an English degree: that is, not especially useful unless there’s some incredibly attentive reading happening. Writing programs are now ubiquitous and I guess most would-be writers will inevitably encounter them.  It’s a mystery, and always will be, what makes a poet but working out how to proceed from what’s already been accomplished, direct engagement with the tradition (from imitation to argument) is always an element of apprenticeship.  Fervent work-shopping of juvenilia by credential- hungry non-readers won’t replace that. Whether one comes to a serious engagement with language in a classroom or elsewhere doesn’t matter.  What matters is where and how far one carries the torch, how personally one takes the blessing and obligation of speech.

Thank you, John.


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