Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Ewan Whyte

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Ewan Whyte

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Ewan Whyte is a writer and translator residing in Toronto. He has written reviews for The Globe and Mail and Books in Canada. His short stories, poetry, translations, and essays have been published in literary journals and magazines and he has read his translations of Catullus on public radio in the US. His translation of the poetry of Catullus was published in 2004. He has recently completed a book of poetry and is translating the complete odes of Horace.

TTQ- You recently wrote the forward to Art or War: The Bullet Paintings of Viktor Mitic (Tightrope Books). How did you come to know of Mitic's artwork and what is it you find most appealing about him as an artist?

Ewan Whyte- I found out about Viktor Mitic's art from the front cover of the Toronto Sun. It is unusual for a piece of contemporary art to make the front cover of a major newspaper. It was his portrait of Jesus called Hole Jesus in calming blues and black outlines and shot with actual bullet holes in ordered lines along its outlines. A painting of the Jesus figure shot with bullet holes may be startling to some. To others, it may seem perfectly appropriate. The effect of the bullet holes showing through as white against the lighter blues of Hole Jesus creates a vibrant effect, reminiscent of a religious shroud. The yellow halo is a complementary colour to the blue, and the strength of the yellow-gold with flecks of red creates harmonious contrast. There is a patient, mystical feel to this work despite the bullet holes. It is exactly what an executed religious figure that pointed ceaselessly to the human dangers of “mimetic desire” would be: calm. There is a short documentary about his “bullet painting” by Laurie Kwasnik which will be released later this year.

The deliberate destruction of the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by religious extremists in central Afghanistan in 2001 inspired Viktor Mitic to say, “it is incredibly shocking that people would destroy something of that significance, something which is one of a kind in the world, which means so much to others. It’s like tearing out part of someone else’s heart.” At that moment he wondered, could the process work in reverse: “Can guns ever be used to create something beautiful?” In the bullet paintings of Viktor Mitic, we are presented with guns as tools for the creation of works of art. Guns, aside from being the weapon of choice for combatants in every modern war, are represented everywhere in popular culture and have become the overwhelming symbol of pure power, (a godlike power), the power of life and death.

The medieval cathedral in Europe was once a symbol of the immense power of life and death both politically and spiritually. Roland Barthes compared the impact of the mid-20th century automobile as the “creation of its age” to the way the cathedral dominated the European imagination in an earlier age. For our time, it is the gun, or, more specifically, the handgun that commands our immediate fascination and attention (interestingly the cathedral, the car and the gun are all creations of anonymous artists). The act of shooting a painting may appear excessively violent or even obsessive. Its psychological impact is intense, especially when the shooting is so professionally done. Viktor Mitic shoots his paintings from close range, with a hard surface behind the canvas to get a small, even, perfectly rounded bullet-hole effect. By hanging the painting some distance from a hard surface and shooting it with a shotgun, he creates larger, sprayed holes to achieve a sort of “loose brush” effect with bullets. His gunshot paintings are carried out with what can be described as industrial speed.

However, there is a sense of harmony in the closure, or linking of spaces, between the bullet holes and the burn marks they make. If we didn’t know better, this planned symmetry may make us ask the unexpected question: “Did a gun make this line of holes that works so well with the composition of this painting?” There is a feeling of a boundary being permanently crossed by these acts of “violent” creation, and the effects are significant. Viktor Mitic’s bullet paintings remind us that so much in ordinary, daily life is controlled or sublimated violence, and that this too can give birth to a significant aesthetic experience.

TTQ- Your first book, Catullus Latin/english Bilingual Edition (Mosaic), was the translation of the poetry of Catullus and was published in 2004. Most recently you have been working on translating the complete odes of Horace. What is it you find so fascinating about both of these poets, and how has translating their poetry had a positive effect on your own poetry?

EW- Both of these poets are great poets but for very different reasons. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, commonly called Horace in English, was born in what is now Venosa in the south west of Italy in 65 BCE. His father was a freedman (a freed slave) who managed to acquire modest wealth, a considerable amount of which he spent educating his young son. The youthful Horace was sent to Rome and later to Athens to study philosophy and rhetoric. He fought in the battle of Philippi against the future emperor Augustus, who, years later, was to become his patron. Horace wrote epodes, satires, epistles and a work on the art of poetry, but it is for his odes with their remarkable lyric beauty that he has been admired in every age. He died in 8 BCE. Catullus, by contrast, is generally everyone’s favorite literary madman of the ancient world. His colourful poetic descriptions of urban Roman life during the dying years of the Republic are a treasure of ancient literature (his book survived in a single copy). He satirized Julius Caesar and Cicero magnificently and in the end his sense of invective humour may have gotten him killed. This general kind of reading teaches humility as a writer and a realization that, as George Steiner observes, it is hard to make a scratch of a brick on the wall of history. These two poets are for all time—few are. A Catullus poem even made it on the subway in Toronto's “poetry on the way” public poetry program:

Let us live and love
not listening to old men’s talk.
Suns will rise and set
long after our little light
has gone away to darkness.
Kiss me again and again.
Let me kiss you a hundred times,
a thousand more, again a thousand
without rest, losing count,
so no one can speak of us and say
they know the number of our kisses.

I have just finished writing a book of original poetry, and comparing it to Horace or Catullus is a sobering prospect.

TTQ- How important is reading your poetry to a live audience, and do you have a few favourite venues or poetry events that you enjoy reading at most?

EW- There is a long tradition of poetry readings going back to ancient Greece. Even Plato saw fit to make fun of the extremes of poetry readings in one of his dialogues. Seamus Heaney’s wife is on record as having said there is no such thing as a short poetry reading. In listening to recordings of poetry readings from the early 20th century to our time it is quite clear there has been a change in the way poetry has been read publicly. The many once-much-followed poetry recordings by Robert Speight in the '50s and '60s would not be possible today. There are other influences of course today. The theatrical bombast reading style was really brought in by Dylan Thomas in the early '50s. I think reading poetry in bars with wait staff moving about and talking to heavy drinking patrons is emblematic of the state of poetry today. I find reading in bars less enjoyable than other reading venues.

TTQ- What are your thoughts concerning the recent G20 Summit protests in Toronto? Do you feel there should be a "public inquiry" concerning the way riot police treated protesters and bystanders?

EW- I think there will not be an inquiry as it would leave authorities vulnerable to too many future checks. The Roman satirist Juvenal has a great line on that: “And who shall guard the guardians themselves.” I think watching the police kill Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport and then lie about it is not so uncommon. That case is just more public as the police in question were caught discussing how to “bend the truth” about it afterwards.

TTQ- What role should the poets of Toronto play in bringing more attention to the public's grievances concerning social and political issues, or do you feel there is too much apathy within the poetry community?

EW- In Byron’s era poetry outsold fiction several times over. Poets are somewhat marginalized in our time. It is no longer a possible fantasy to be, as Shelley famously stated, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I don’t think there will be a reversal of this any time soon. The bigger problem is most poets are not intellectuals and really do not understand political economics beyond an emotional reaction. I think the poetry community in Canada, with a few exceptions, is not really up to the challenge of leadership in this area. I think there are journalists like Gwynn Dyer and people in the documentary film community in Toronto who are. That said, I think it is great when poets get involved and try to do whatever they can for the public good.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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