Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Bruce Whiteman

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Poets in Profile: Bruce Whiteman

There are long poems and then there are long poems, and Bruce Whiteman's poetic endurance is beyond reproach. This fall sees the publication of his newest collection of poetry, Intimate Letters (ECW Press), which comprises the seventh (yes, seventh!) instalment of his acclaimed prose poem The Invisible World Is in Decline.

Taking its title from a string quartet by Leoš Jánaček, Intimate Letters begins, as a book of its title should, with love poems, and moves on through themes of loss and dispossession. This newest collection from an incisive and authentically creative poet is not to be missed.

Bruce speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. He tells us about the value of unrequited love, where he disagrees with Auden and campaigning for Sappho.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Bruce Whiteman:

Unrequited love in high school. Surely many poets start here, with feelings that are difficult, won't go away, and demand some sort of emotional response. Poetry may not be the only way to express those feelings, but it helped me enormously and set me on the path of becoming a poet.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land". When I was 14 or 15, my older brother set me down and we read through the poem carefully. He was already a master of its cultural references, and that was part of the attraction for me. But beyond that, the poem was so ambitious and dealt with so many emotions and large themes that I was hooked. It also included an allusion to a bird from Quebec, where my parents had grown up, and that local bit was strangely compelling.

I can't read Eliot much anymore. There is an emotional sclerosis in his poems that is rebarbative to me now. But his famous poem meant a lot to me for many years.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


It changes from year to year in line with my current enthusiasms. Of course, who would not want to have written "Ozymandias" or "Sunday Morning" or "Canto 1"? Right now I wish I had written Tennyson's "In Memoriam", because I have come late to Tennyson and that poem is so staggeringly beautiful and moving. Auden dismissed Tennyson as a "stupid" poet for ridiculous and irrelevant reasons. Tennyson's ear WAS his intelligence, and the poems were sometimes almost too melodic. But his great elegy is imperishable.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


"Unlikely" is an odd word, as poet go to all kinds of sources for inspiration, and unless they are criminal or involve unspeakable paraphilias, "unlikely" doesn't really seem germane. The imagination really isn't that weird most of the time. I had to stop in at the Royal Ontario Museum last New Year's Day to borrow paper and pen — nothing else was open — because a bird had inspired a short poem as I was walking down my street, and I didn't want to forget the poem.

One of my reliable muses is music. I don't write with music playing — that would be far too distracting — but I am constantly listening to classical works from Monteverdi to the present, and a musical attention to words underlies everything I write. I recently wasted a couple of days trying to figure out whether I could write a poem in a specific key — B-flat minor, I think it was. Silly. But all the same, music is hugely important to me and it drifts from the air into my writing all the time. I judge other poets' work by it, and I hope that my own work demonstrates the musicality of language.


What do you do when a poem is not working?


If it's really awful I pitch it into the round filing cabinet. But usually it's a matter of time. I might take a break and devote myself to one of a number of time-wasters (making tea, dusting etc., the usual), then return to the poem with what I hope will be a fresh perspective. If that doesn't work, I simply put it away for a day or a week or a month and return to the notebook later, with hope of finding my way to the poem's end, good or bad.

I don't waste much, however. Incomplete or failed pieces usually get reworked or incorporated into something else if possible. My poetry notebooks are full of fragments that end badly but later find their way into different contexts.


What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?


Among recent books, C.K. Williams' Writers Writing Dying struck me hard. Williams does not write prose poems (my own passion), but his long line, based in Whitman, gives his poems an almost-prose-poem feel, and his virtuoso use of language is wonderfully compelling. He also has a poet's lovely and delightful imagination. One of the poems in that book has the poet taking his wife's body fully into his mouth in an act of love. Who would ever imagine such a thing but a poet?

But I re-read a lot, and some recent confrontations with familiar texts have also blown me away. I remain awe-struck and humble in the face of the poetry of Basil Bunting, Ovid's exile poems, Cymbeline, the late poems of D.H. Lawrence and Ralph Gustafson, etc. I spent last summer writing a long essay on Sappho, and despite the fragmentary remains of her poems — only one poem complete — she is almost a muse unto herself. That's it: we need a tenth muse. Sappho. Okay, that's not an original appellation, but I vote for her election!


What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?


The worst is easy: lack of respect in the culture at large, and poverty unless one does something else apart from writing poetry. Almost every poet has to make that compromise, and it's demoralizing at times.

The best is more ramified. It's an honour, really, to spend much of my time trying to say things in words that are not just expressive of emotions, ideas, etc., but also may provoke emotion and thought in whatever readers are out there for poetry. The imagination is in some sense what makes us human, is it not? So to spend ones days invoking the imagination is wonderfully happy-making. Given what our society values highly, it's an odd way to "make a living," writing poems. You need a lot of dedication. It's utterly worth it.

Bruce Whiteman, author of The Invisible World Is in Decline, is a Canadian poet and writer who lives in Toronto. He has degrees from Trent University, the University of Toronto, and UCLA, and has worked as a rare book librarian at both McMaster and McGill. He is the Head Librarian Emeritus of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA. Whiteman has published extensively as a poet, scholar, cultural historian and book reviewer. Recent books include Visible Stars: New and Selected Poems, as well as books on the painter J.E.H. MacDonald and on the history of publishing in Quebec. His collection Tablature will be published next spring by McGill-Queen's University Press.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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