James Pollock is the author of Sailing to Babylon, a book of poems published by Able Muse Press in 2012 and currently shortlisted for this year's Governor General's Literary Award in poetry. His book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada is forthcoming in November, 2012, from The Porcupine's Quill. His poems have been published in The Paris Review, Maisonneuve, Poetry Daily, The Fiddlehead, AGNI, Canadian Literature and other journals in the U.S. and Canada, and listed in Best Canadian Poetry 2010. His critical essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, The New Quarterly, Arc Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. He earned an Honours B.A. in English literature and creative writing from York University in Toronto, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston, where he held several fellowships in poetry. He was a John Woods Scholar in poetry at the Prague Summer Program at Charles University in Prague, and a work-study scholar in poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He is an associate professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches poetry in the creative writing program. He lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin.
For more information, visit James Pollock at his website.
The Franklin Expedition, 1845-48
When you set out to find your Northwest Passage
and cross to an empty region of the map
with a headlong desire to know what lies beyond,
sailing the thundering ice-fields on the ocean,
feeling her power move you from below;
when all summer the sun’s hypnotic eye
won’t blink, and the season slowly passes, an endless
dream in which you’re forever diving into pools,
fame’s image forever rising up to meet you;
when the fall comes, at last, triumphantly,
and you enter Victoria’s narrow frozen Strait,
and your Terror and Erebus freeze in the crushing floes;
in that long winter night among the steeples
of jagged ice, and the infinite, empty plain of wind and snow,
when the sea refuses to be re-born in spring,
three winters pass without a thaw, and the men,
far from their wives and children, far from God,
are murdering one another over cards;
when blue gums, colic, paralysis of the wrists
come creeping indiscriminately among you;
and you leave the ships, and set out on the ice,
dragging the lifeboats behind, loaded
with mirrors and soap, slippers and clocks,
into the starlit body of the night,
with your terrible desire to know what lies beyond;
then, half-mad, snow blind, even then,
before you kill the ones who’ve drawn the fatal lots,
and take your ghastly communion in the snow,
may you stumble at last upon some band of Inuit
hauling their catch of seal across the ice,
and see how foolish you have been:
forcing your way by will across a land
that can’t be forced, but must be understood,
toward a passage just now breaking up within.
Northrop Frye at Bowles Lunch
“I have had sudden visions.”
Bloor Street, Toronto, 1934
3 a.m. in the all-night diner, dizzy
with Benzedrine and lack of sleep, old books
and papers scattered across the table.
With his pen, his Dickensian spectacles,
his pounding, driving Bourgeois intellect,
he charges into a poem by William Blake
with two facts and a thesis, cuts Milton
open on the table like a murdered corpse
and spins it like a teetotum until
he’s put each sentence through its purgatory
and made the poet bless him with a sign
thus (through perhaps one can picture this
only from a point outside of time)
he sees the shattered universe around him
explode in reverse, and make the flying
shards of its blue Rose window whole again.
TTQ – When did you begin to write poetry and what inspired you to do so?
James Pollock – I wrote my first poem thirty years ago, when I was fourteen years old, probably in September or October, 1982. In a little red pocket notebook. I had just started high school, and I remember we read two of Blake’s poems in my English class out of The Heath Introduction to Literature: “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” The rhythm of those poems stayed in my memory afterward. A few days later I went to the movies, and then walked home by myself, looking up from time to time at the stars, and the rhythm of the way I was walking on the sidewalk—I must have been trying to avoid stepping on the cracks, so I was going slowly, and stomping—the rhythm brought back the metre of Blake’s poems. It wasn’t the words I was remembering so much as the trochaic metre. Now, I was a passionate reader of science fiction when I was a child, and a lot of my imaginative life in my childhood happened among the stars, and so with this rhythm in my head I started to compose my poem, which ended up being about how the stars were “the firmament of spirit’s need” without which it would be “a black and bleary life.” Once I’d started I kept making up lines with mounting excitement. I can still remember most of it: it’s in trochaic tetrameter, and rhymed couplets, and the whole thing is one sentence long. (And the diction is antique; I must have picked that up from Blake, too.) Anyway, I was so excited at having done this that I ran home, reciting it in my mind over and over so I wouldn’t forget it, and went inside and climbed upstairs to my bedroom and wrote it down in green ink in my little red notebook that fit in my hand.
TTQ – In your opinion, what constitutes a great poem?
James Pollock – I’ve thought about this important question at length in an essay called “The Art of Poetry,” which I’m told is just now being published in Canadian Notes & Queries, and which will also appear on November 15 in my book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada. In that essay I think my way through some of the most influential ideas about poetry in the Western tradition, extract what I think are the most persuasive elements, and combine them into what I hope is a coherent and flexible theory of poetic value. I conclude that the main qualities we value in poetry are aesthetic pleasure, the renewal of moral sources, access to human truth, performative or creative power, and contact with something higher or deeper than the self. But because poetry is an art, I argue that the poet can only achieve these things—not just aesthetic pleasure, but each one of them—through consummate mastery of technique, including a profound engagement with the great poetry of the past. To see precisely what I mean, and why I think this is true, I invite you to read that essay.
TTQ – How would you best describe the poems in your debut collection Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012) and is there a particular theme or message you’re trying to convey to the reader?
James Pollock – Edgar Degas is said to have complained to his friend Mallarmé that he himself had plenty of ideas for poems but couldn’t manage to get them down on paper—to which Mallarmé is said to have replied that poems aren’t made of ideas, they’re made of words. I couldn’t agree more. So no, there are no messages; or if there are, then to paraphrase them in the absence of the poems themselves would be to kill the resonance that the poems give to them. I don’t think anyone really reads poetry for its messages anyway; that’s what philosophy is for. Besides, a great poem, a good poem and a bad poem may all have the same message. What matters is whether the poem succeeds as a work of art.
As for themes, in Sailing to Babylon the main one is the theme of exploration: the journey. This gets refracted into a variety of times and settings and characters, including actual explorers like John Franklin, Henry Hudson, and David Thompson, and mental travelers like Northrop Frye and Glenn Gould. There are poems set in various places, including Vienna, Prague, and Florida. And there is a long poem about a hike through the woods in a park in Madison, Wisconsin, where I live. Robert Frost said that if there are twenty-nine poems in a book, the book itself should be the thirtieth poem, and that was my hope for this book: I wanted to give it both an internal variety and a radical coherence, and to take the reader on a meaningful journey from the first poem to the last.
TTQ – How long did it take you to write Sailing to Babylon? Talk about your writing process in general. Is it important that you write only at certain times of the day or in a particular environment?
James Pollock - A first book is special, because it’s the goal of a poet’s whole apprenticeship, so in that sense I began to write it the night I composed my first poem when I was fourteen years old. But it took me a long time to write anything good enough to make it into a book. The oldest poem in Sailing to Babylon is the opening lyric about the Franklin Expedition, “Northwest Passage,” which I wrote in the mid-to-late-nineties. And the newest is the last poem, “Quarry Park,” which I finished this year. So in that sense, I wrote the book over about fifteen years.
It’s not important to me when or where I write. I do a lot of writing in my study at home, but I’ve also written in coffee shops and restaurants. I like to write at night, but I’ve written plenty of things by day, too. A writer needs to develop intense powers of concentration, and once you do that, it matters very little what your environment is like—within limits: I draw the line at jackhammers and screaming children.
What I do need in order to write is to read something extremely good. On the radio a couple of weeks ago there was a story about some neuroscientists who did an MRI study of people’s brains while they were reading. They found that when people were reading the newspaper, only a small part of the brain involved in processing information was activated. But when they were reading Jane Austen novels, their entire brains lit up, including the parts associated with things like gauging the orientation of the body in space. That’s what reading literature intensely does to your imagination, which helps explain why it’s the perfect stimulation for a writer. I can tell when this is happening to me, because when I’m engrossed in something I’m reading I feel a great pleasure of a kind that I don’t really feel any other way. That’s when poems start to come.
I often write in metrical verse, sometimes in rhyme, sometimes in complex forms. I find that the discipline of this—in ancient India they called poetic metre a “yoga”—gives me access to sources of creative power that are deeper or higher than myself. As D.H. Lawrence puts it, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” You mean to say one thing, but the prosody won’t quite let you, so you have to find a better way of putting it, and you find yourself saying all these surprising things; it’s like there’s a much better poet whispering suggestions in your ear. Your conscious will is busy working out the complex puzzle of the metre and so on, and this gives your unconscious—the gods, duende, whatever you want to call it—all kinds of opportunities to speak. Of course, there are many benefits of good prosody that have to do with effects on a reader or listener, but I’m just talking here about the benefits for the poet in the act of writing.
TTQ – What is the most difficult aspect of writing poetry for you and why?
James Pollock – The most difficult lesson I’ve had to learn is patience. After “Northwest Passage” was accepted by The Paris Review—it was my third published poem—it took years for me to write another poem good enough to make it into the book. I was writing drafts of poems that eventually made it in, but it took years and years and endless revisions to make them good. At the time I had no way of knowing for sure whether all that work would pay off. I just had to keep pounding away at it.
My mother’s parents were Finnish immigrants to Canada, and the national virtue of Finns is something called sisu, which means perseverance, determination, tenacity, an endless capacity to keep going in the face of failure. And at some point I realized that there is no right age at which to publish your first book. Each poet has his or her own path, and mine involved publishing relatively late, but there are plenty of poets whose first books came early who wish they’d never published the damn things. As for me, so far, I don’t regret a word.
TTQ – Who helped you with the editing process of Sailing to Babylon and how important was their input in completing the book?
James Pollock – My wife, Stormy Stipe, a terrific writer herself, read every poem many times—in fact, she read every draft I wanted her to read, and not just for the poems that made it into the book—and she was always honest and intelligent. Having an in-house editor like that is just gold. And there were several teachers and mentors and friends of mine who gave me criticism on particular poems. Edward Hirsch didn’t like the original ending of “Northwest Passage,” for example. Linda Gregerson and Jeffery Donaldson both didn’t like the original ending of “Quarry Park,” back when it was just three pages long, and Carmine Starnino suggested some judicious cuts to the first three pages of that poem once it had grown past its current length, twenty-two pages. (I owe Carmine a debt of gratitude, because he read the whole manuscript for me after it had been accepted, as I was preparing it for publication. He’s a very generous man, and an excellent editor. I hear the same thing from other poets all the time.) Joan Houlihan and Jeffrey Levine at the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference made invaluable suggestions about the manuscript as a whole—which poems to take out, what changes I should make to the order of the poems. And there were a number of smaller suggestions that came from my editor Alex Pepple at Able Muse Press, and the half-dozen hawk-eyed proofreaders who work for him. I’m especially grateful to Alex, not only for publishing the book, but for his patience after he accepted it, while I sought criticism from Houlihan, Levine and Starnino, and once again from my wife. It delayed the publication date by several months, but I’m sure the book is much better for it. How important was all this help? Extremely important.
TTQ – How surprised were you to have Sailing to Babylon nominated for the Governor General's Award in Poetry and what would it mean to you personally to win such a prestigious award?
James Pollock – I am tremendously grateful that the book is a finalist, and would be still more grateful if it were to win. What it would mean is that the book would find its readers much sooner than otherwise. That’s already starting to happen, but winning would ice that cake.
The book has received some wonderful responses from some really tough poets and critics whom I admire a great deal—mostly in private correspondence, though Michael Lista just gave it its first review in the National Post. Anyway, their responses have been profoundly encouraging to me. The book has been getting lots of enthusiasm from less experienced readers, too, people who don’t read much poetry, which is gratifying if a little surprising. So I knew people were liking the book. But I also knew what a big role luck plays in these things, so it was a wonderful thrill to hear the news. There was much dancing at my house.
I want to say, as well, that several fine Canadian poets published books this year who aren’t on the shortlist: Evan Jones, for example, and Anita Lahey, Tim Bowling, Robyn Sarah, Mark Callanan, Todd Swift. I’m looking forward with pleasure to reading their books.
TTQ – I’m curious about your long poem from Sailing to Babylon called “Quarry Park.” What inspired you to write it?
James Pollock – I had been teaching a course for a few years called “Spiritual Journeys,” which involved reading The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy, so I had Dante on my mind. Then one day when I was at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop at Kenyon College, the workshop leader, David Baker, suggested we write something in a verse form of our choice. I chose terza rima, and wrote maybe twenty lines. (We had to write it in one day, so I didn’t get any further than that.) Terza rima made me think of Dante, naturally, and it struck me that describing my two-year-old son leading me around the woods near our house in Madison, Wisconsin, on my fortieth birthday, would be just the right subject for terza rima, since it playfully recalled Dante being led around in the Inferno and the Purgatorio by the spirit of Virgil: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods . . . .” I thought maybe I had something there. And the response the next day was enthusiastic, so after the conference I went home and kept working on it until it was a poem about three pages long called “The Mountain,” though I knew that title wouldn’t do. The next summer I took it back to Kenyon; and Linda Gregerson, as I say, didn’t think the ending worked, though she was very excited about the rest of it. And Jeffery Donaldson had said something similar a bit earlier; he liked the ending in terms of its formal technique, but he didn’t think it was a satisfying ending for the poem. The next fall I had a sabbatical, and I was determined to finish this poem before I turned to the thing I was supposed to be writing, namely my book of essays on Canadian poetry. But first I started reading a lot of other poems, and some criticism, and thinking about what I was doing, and I realized I was writing a “greater Romantic lyric,” in the tradition of poems like “Tintern Abbey” and “Ode to a Nightingale” and Robert Frost’s poem “The Woodpile” and certain poems by Yeats. I wondered if I was ready to take on something that ambitious, but there were two things going for me: the response to the poem so far was enthusiastic—I felt myself that it might be the best thing I had written—and I felt there was something original I could do in that tradition, notwithstanding the stature of the poets who had gone before. Anyway, I removed the ending, and started working on the poem. I thought it might end up being ten or twelve pages long. In the end, it was much longer than that, and it took my entire sabbatical to finish the first draft, but I knew I had something large by the tail, and I wasn’t going to let go.
TTQ – You were born in Canada and are now living and working full-time in the United States. When did you decide to move south and to what degree do you find the world of poetry differs in each country?
James Pollock – I moved to Houston, Texas, for graduate school in 1991. The poetry world in the States is like the country itself: large, energetic, highly competitive, ambitious, fractious, stratified, decentralized, filled with opportunities, in some quarters cosmopolitan, in others not. For many poets, there’s also a noticeable lack of connection to the tradition of English poetry. They really believe there’s an American language, and that Whitman and Dickinson are its Adam and Eve. And there’s a lot of anxiety about being up-to-date, which leads to too many boring fashions. But they make up for it with a big appetite for poetry in other traditions, so much so that, thanks to them, we’re living in a great age of translation, with competing versions of Montale, Rilke, Cavafy, Celan, Szymborska, Herbert, Leopardi, Baudelaire and you name it coming out year after year. It’s wonderful. And poets move to the States from all over the world, usually to teach at American universities: Derek Walcott, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, and on and on. Mind you, a vast pile of bad and mediocre poetry gets published in the States every year, and there aren’t enough good critics to winnow the wheat from the chaff.
In Canada, we’re dealing with a much smaller tide pool, and, I’m afraid, a much more isolated one. There’s very little translation, the journals are concerned almost exclusively with Canadian poetry, and there are far fewer institutions—creative writing programs, journals, book prizes, publishers, conferences, and so on. And far fewer poets and critics. But if you know anything about the history of poetry, you know that it’s not the size of the country that matters; it’s the quality of its best poetry. Case in point: a lot of the best poets since World War II have come from small countries like Poland and Ireland. If the United States is like Italy during the Renaissance—more or less—then Canada is like England in the 16th century: the main action may seem to be happening elsewhere, but something big is getting started here.
TTQ – Do you think that poetry is going through some kind of resurgence today and why?
James Pollock – In Canada, yes, for two reasons. First, a new generation of poets has appeared in the last twenty years or so—since about 1990—that, as a group, has a much better grasp of technique and a more cosmopolitan literary outlook than most of the poets in the generation or two before. This new generation includes poets like Eric Ormsby, Anne Carson, Jeffery Donaldson, Ken Babstock, Stephanie Bolster, George Elliott Clarke, Karen Solie, Carmine Starnino, and plenty of others.
Second, a few new poet-critics have begun not only to respond to these poets, but to take on a desperately-needed revaluation of earlier generations. I’m referring to Starnino (whose second book of criticism has just been published), Jason Guriel (who has a book of criticism coming out next year), Robyn Sarah, Zachariah Wells, Michael Lista, Stewart Cole, and some others. But we need more good critics—including, as others have pointed out, more good critics who happen to be women. Anne Carson is a terrific critic, but she never writes about Canadian poetry.
TTQ – You mentioned earlier that you have another book launching soon called You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (Porcupine's Quill, 2012). What was the genesis of this book and what should readers expect?
James Pollock – I was reading a biography of Rilke about seven years ago, and I noticed that when he was a young, struggling poet like me he wrote a lot of reviews. It occurred to me that I could do that, since I had published a couple of reviews of poets when I was in graduate school. So I went online and found a book I wanted to review—I thought I’d start with an anthology of poetry by Canadian poets about my age, called The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. I found a Web site devoted to reviews of Canadian poetry called poetryreviews.ca, and contacted the editor, Eric Barstad. I think I sent him the two reviews I’d published, and suggested he let me review The New Canon, and sure enough he agreed, and had a review copy sent to my address. I didn’t like everything in there, but there were fifteen or twenty poets I thought were very good, and that’s a lot of good poets for one generation—a lot better success rate than any other generation of Canadian poets—and so I wrote an enthusiastic review and sent it off to Eric, and then started in on a second review, this time about a new book by Anne Carson called Decreation. A few weeks later I received a complimentary e-mail from Carmine Starnino, editor of The New Canon, inviting me to review something for Books in Canada, where he was the reviews editor. After that, I just kept going.
When Carmine suggested a few years later that I put together a collection of my essays and reviews, I had been planning to write comprehensive studies of all the poets I liked best from The New Canon—reviews of all their books to date, the way a teacher of mine in graduate school, Richard Howard, had done for his generation of American poets in a book called Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950. But I kept getting interesting assignments to write on other subjects, and I realized that I wouldn’t have time to cover anything like the number of poets I wanted to before the manuscript was due. Nevertheless, when I read through everything I’d published, I realized I already had most of a coherent book. I wrote a few more essays, including “The Art of Poetry,” and that did it, the manuscript was done.
The book includes essays on Eric Ormsby, Anne Carson, Jeffery Donaldson, Karen Solie, and several other poets, along with reviews of half a dozen anthologies, a self-interview on the subject of criticism, and “The Art of Poetry.” The whole thing is a sustained effort to read Canadian poetry in the context of poetry as an art, that is, in the context of world poetry. And by extension, it’s an attack—mostly by example—on the xenophobic literary nationalism that was so devastating to Canadian poetry in previous generations, and still has its adherents even now. Readers can expect unflinching critical honesty—there are some tough reviews of books by Dennis Lee and W.J. Keith, for example—and, I hope, entertaining prose and plenty of insights and discoveries.
Some people might think there’s a contradiction, by the way, between my writing poems on Canadian themes and my tough talk about literary nationalism. So let me be clear. It’s not Canadian themes I object to. One might as well have asked the ancient Greeks to stop writing about the aftermath of the Trojan war. What I condemn is the idea that Canadian poets shouldn’t learn from poets outside of Canada—including American poets—and the notion that they should be read only in the context of Canadian poetry. On the contrary, Canadian poets should learn as much as they can from the best poets in the world, and their work should be read in that context. We’ve got to understand that international subjects do not in themselves make poems cosmopolitan, any more than Canadian themes in themselves make poems provincial. Cosmopolitanism in poetry is about engagement with world poetry, with the larger tradition of poetry as an art.
TTQ – You’re currently teaching poetry at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. What words of wisdom do you find yourself repeating over and over again in hopes that your students become better students and writers of poetry?
James Pollock – At Loras the mantra is “active learning,” so I try not to browbeat my students with advice. You’ve got to let them discover things for themselves, otherwise what you say doesn’t sink in. What young writers need is to steadily develop a repertoire of rhetorical and prosodic technique, so that they can quickly liberate themselves from a feeling of relatively inarticulate frustration. They need to understand right away that poetry is an art, and a demanding one. So I give them assignments designed to teach them specific things about how to use the resources of the language. In the introductory workshop I give them their assignments, and in the advanced class I let them choose, but what they’re all doing is working hard to develop facility with tropes, schemes, prosody, sound effects, sub-genres, and so on. This is very different from the way workshops were when I was their age.
Two other things I want to instill in my students are 1) an understanding that writing poetry involves a lot of revision, and 2) a cosmopolitan attitude to the art. I have them read a lot of poetry in translation.
TTQ – How important is participating in live poetry readings to you and do you feel that reading new poetry in front of a live audience helps you in any way when it comes to the writing process?
James Pollock – The writing process? No. If it’s not ready for publication, I wouldn’t read it in front of an audience if I could help it. I’ve sat through too many bad readings to inflict that on other people. But it’s a pleasure to read something that’s finished in front of an audience and get their reaction. At the Loras College book launch for Sailing to Babylon earlier this month I took a risk and broke a cardinal rule of poetry readings, which is “never read anything very long.” I warmed them up with a few shorter poems, and then I read all of “Quarry Park,” which took well over half an hour, maybe forty minutes. It’s a lot to ask of an audience, and I had never read it in public before, so I did it with some trepidation. But the response was wonderful. One of my colleagues, who teaches twentieth century American literature, told me afterward how much she liked the way it sounds, which was very gratifying. It’s precisely to hear how poems sound that we have poetry readings.
TTQ – What’s next for James Pollock?
James Pollock – Once the dust clears from these two book launches, there’s an essay on Stephanie Bolster that’s long overdue with my editor at CNQ. And I’m taking a class of students to Oxford, London and Paris in January. As for my next book of poetry, that’s a secret.