John Pass is the author of 19 books and chapbooks
Over the next couple of months, The Town Crier will be featuring short interviews with Canadian authors published by BC publishers, conducted by BC publishing professionals. The second in the series is an interview with BC poet Amber McMillan, author of We Can’t Ever Do This Again and John Pass, author of Forecast: Selected Early Poems 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing). Find the first interview in the series here.
Amber McMillan: Your most recent collection Forecast: Selected Early Poems 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing, 2015) is a collection of poetry that spans 20 years of your writing and thinking, however many of the themes persist.
John Pass: Is this a question? I’m a little uncertain always as to what’s meant by theme in poetry. It’s an intimate genre, speaks personally as best it can, firstly to the poet’s self and ideally beyond to a reader’s deepest concerns. So a good poem’s central issues seem to me to be almost an aspect of the poet’s character, something that develops but is uniquely recognizable, what is sometimes called the poet’s voice … but there’s no really good term for it, because at its best it’s a shared voice too. It’s a universally human voice, prayer in a sense, where the deity is our presence, our attention. The shifting elements are time, experience, locale, form, the various ways or instances of coming at the timeless concerns, the perennial questions. So my answer would be … yes?
AM: In what ways do you see your work in the ’70s speaking to your later work in the ’90s? It what ways has it changed?
JP: Early potent influences were the English Romantics and Imagism. In my late teens I began looking for aspects of the observed, material world that might carry thought and feeling when expressed in language. What evolved was a range of approaches on that spectrum, from imagistic lyric instances through travel narrative, landscape/geographical metaphor, love poems, etc., to Forecast’s central sequence, ‘An Arbitrary Dictionary,’ which takes words selected at random as titles for its poems, asks language itself to take its own exterior lead into interior life. So over those years I was balancing, rebalancing (and ultimately unbalancing) words against the world. I became competent, articulate and began simultaneously to question articulation and naming. In the late ’80s I began work on an extended project, a quartet of books, that builds on whatever “heart and skill” (to use Ondaatje’s superb, concise phrase) my early work accomplishes or embodies.
AM: Family, domesticity and intimacy are touchstones that you seem to return to over and over again in Forecast. In what ways do you think of these poems as predictions or forecasts?
JP: I had no sense, of course, that I was making predictions or forecasts at the time. Hindsight, and the fortuitous title of a poem previously left out of the ‘Baby Shouts Dao’ sequence, conspired in the conceit of the book’s title. An Iranian friend generously inquired whether I meant the book to be used for divination, as Hafiz often is. Yikes! What struck me in revisiting these early poems was how much they echoed forward into my later life; the poems for my young children, especially, dovetail into my present experience of new grandchildren. For instance, my grandson, 3 months old, was just here on his first visit out west from Ottawa. We’re bouncing him about in the kitchen as grown-ups will, when suddenly a few lines come to me from a poem (‘Forrest’s Perfect Chuckle’) that I wrote for his Dad at the same age: “Put him up / in the air in your arms / and see // how artless he / makes art’s best argument!” My grandson’s name: Arthur.
That’s a cute coincidence, certainly, and nothing more in isolation. But coincidence, the lucky, sure-footed accidents of life and language, speak to a profound constancy and continuity that the practice of poetry glimpses. Care and attention to words and to the world happen oddly upon home truths, bright little flashes of familiar terrain ahead. Forecasts?
AM: What criteria did you use to edit down your substantial collected poems to fit into Forecast? Did you cull advice from friends and family or did you go at it alone?
JP: The editing was a challenge. I write mostly in poem sequences and I was reluctant to break them up; the weaker parts made the strong parts stronger in my estimation. But there’s only so much space in a “selected” so it had to be done. I did seek advice from friends, and from my wife, who has worthy favourites! Howard and Silas White at Harbour gave me good suggestions. Ultimately, I chose poems that were distinctly representative of the various approaches I saw in my early writing, examples I hope of what the critic Guy Davenport called in later work my “exactitude of attack.” So some good poems that were too similar to others, with interesting variations, digressions, or developments possibly, sadly, were cut. One sequence, “An Arbitrary Dictionary” remains intact. Readers might get a sense from that of how I work within a sequence, how single poems slip and slide against each other, and how wholeness or finish evolves out of intention roughed up by process. I also chose poems that had gone over well in readings, or had seemed to be turning points for me, or that had surprised me when I wrote them. Readers’ responses to the poems in their new incarnations have surprised me too. A little lyric called “The Lights” (unremarked upon back in the ’70s) has pleased a couple of reviewers this time out. I’d never have forecast that!
AM: Having written 19 collections of poetry so far, how would you characterize poetry’s effect on your life? Is it a “job” or is it an essential part of your life as you’ve lived it? Can you imagine your life without having written poems?
The cover of John Pass’ Forecast, released by Harbour Publishing
JP: Well, it’s not a job, as you’d expect to make a living, or at least a regular income, from that, but (as I say in “The Embankment” in Forecast) “something, neither profit / nor recreation, keeps me at it.” Poetry is as essential to me as that stone wall was to preventing the driveway’s slide into the orchard. It has shaped not only the contours of my thinking, my sense of self and place, but the actual conditions of my existence. I met my wife at a poetry reading. I built a house with a pencil in my belt for marking boards and for scribbling lines under construction. I have written and printed poems (on an antique Chandler & Price letterpress in the print-shop out back) for a couple of my birthdays and for the births of each of my children and grandchildren. Numberless moments as deserving of celebration have slipped the noose. Accepting a beautifully boxed copy of my GG winning book, I shook hands with Her Excellency, the beautiful and gracious, Michaëlle Jean. I’m challenged daily to some better words for the grey/green wall and depth of forest confronting me out my study window. I can imagine a life without writing poems; I’d be absent.
ABOUT HARBOUR PUBLISHING:
Harbour Publishing is an award-winning independent book publisher owned and operated by Howard and Mary White. The company was established in 1974 and is based on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Harbour Publishing is well known for the Raincoast Chronicles, a series of anthologies on BC coast history and culture, of which twenty have now been produced. Harbour is also the publisher of over five hundred titles, including the bestselling Fishing with John by Edith Iglauer; The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth, which won the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry; and many other prize-winning books such as The Encyclopedia of British Columbia, Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Encyclopedia of Invertebrates, Seaweeds and Selected Fishesby Andy Lamb and Bernard P. Hanby and The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names: A Complete Reference to Coastal British Columbia by Andrew Scott.
ABOUT JOHN PASS:
John Pass’s poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic. He is the author of nineteen books and chapbooks, most notably the quartet AT LARGE, comprised of The Hour’s Acropolis (Harbour, 1991), Radical Innocence (Harbour, 1994), Water Stair (Oolichan Books, 2000)—shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award—and Stumbling in the Bloom (Oolichan Books, 2005)—winner of the Governor General’s Award. His most recent collection, crawlspace, published by Harbour in 2011, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2012. He lives with his wife, writer Theresa Kishkan, near Sakinaw Lake on BC’s Sunshine Coast.
Amber McMillan is the author of We Can’t Ever Do This Again, published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2015.