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IFOA: Can you describe your poetic process for our readers?
Gary Geddes: I like Karl Shapiro’s notion that poetry is not just a way of saying things, but a way of seeing things, because it reminds me that there’s a poet in all of us, a part that looks for what is deep and essential in daily experience. I use my skill with words to connect with those who share this gift of poetic insight. I keep my antennae tuned to what is happening around me at the local, national and international level, events that touch me emotionally, morally and politically. Some of these signals refuse to go away, so I try to find a way to give them imaginative shape. That’s when the real challenge begins, the struggle to transform feelings into words, and when knowledge of craft becomes so useful. Language is a transforming medium, like passing white light through a prism; the end-product is always different from what you expect and intend.
IFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your wife, the author Ann Eriksson. How do you influence each other as writers?
Geddes: Ann takes the writing of novels seriously, which means that we both know what it’s like to be caught up in the excitement and challenge of a new work-in-progress and how much time is required to produce something worthwhile and lasting. When you respect your partner’s commitment, the sharing of cooking, shopping, house cleaning, et cetera becomes part of the package. So, too, does providing or receiving unexpectedly a cup of tea on the writing table, delivered with a silent smile and, if you’re lucky, a kiss. Ann and I read each other’s work and hope to be able to offer constructive criticism along with moral support, given in small doses during long walks, warm-ups for tai chi in the morning or while kayaking for the mail in the afternoon. As a biologist, Ann is informed and alert to what is happening with the environment and very pro-active, two influences I welcome.
IFOA: Are there particular poets whose writing you are influenced by, or whom you see yourself writing in the same literary tradition as?
Geddes: Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to edit two major poetry anthologies for Oxford University Press. This required shifting into high gear and not only reading the entire works of about two hundred poets, but also selecting a few of their best poems and trying to articulate why they were so good. Many of my favourite poets can be found in the various editions of 20th-Century Poets and Poetics and 15 Canadian Poets.
Teaching was another plus for me as a poet because it forced me to be reading, analyzing and commenting on what I read. Of course, there were specific poets along the way whose work had a more than minor impact on me: Auden, Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Lee Masters, Michael Ondaatje, Pat Lowther, Bronwen Wallace, to name only a few. I love the long poem and poetic narrative and find I’m drawn most often to larger canvases, book-length poems and sequences where anything can happen and where both story and song contend for my attention. I’m a sponge, soaking up as much information about craft as I can from a host of poets. And there’s always more to be learned.
Geddes: I’m working on a non-fiction book about the links between Canada’s notorious residential schools and segregated Indian hospitals, where forced sterilizations took place, along with gratuitous drug and surgical experiments and electric shock treatment designed to destroy the short-term memory of sexual abuse. This involves reading a lot and interviewing elders across the country, who are graciously sharing their stories with me. I’m also working on a new poetry manuscript that, so far, includes a narrative-poem-in-progress and a couple of poem-sequences, one about my mother, Irene Turner, who died of cancer when she was only 35, and another called “On Being Dead in Venice,” which includes poems about Pound, Brodsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but….
Geddes: It’s hard to believe, but writers seem willing to run off at the mouth at the slightest opportunity. Poets are the worst. A cynic once observed that the rewards for poetry are so few, poets will kill for them. I have my doubts about that. They’re more likely to give you an earful, hopefully words so subtly arranged and evocative that they nest in the ear and make their way into the bone marrow. As Robert Hass reminds us, “Because rhythm has access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power. And power is political.”
Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama and criticism. Geddes will read from his latest poetry collection, What Does a House Want?, a polished and cinematographic take on numerous ideas from Israeli-Palestinian violence to the reputation of Ezra Pound.