Time has passed very quickly and only now I realize that I met Richard Harrison almost two years ago. He’s one of the most important contemporary poets from Canada and he came here to Florence to talk about his book “On not losing my father’s ashes in the flood” or in Italian “Sul non perdere le ceneri di mio padre nell’alluvione”, edited by ‘Round Midnight and translated by Riccardo Frolloni. His collection of poems (completed in 11 years) is mostly dedicated to the memory of his father, Ralph, but it also deals with the meaning of poetry, and all the possible explanations of this meaning, gave birth to a constant inner debate. The title of the book refers to the flood that happened in Calgary in 2013. That day, as the water came into his house, Richard thought he had lost forever the ashes of his father, but fortunately he was wrong.
This poem is alive because it is unfinished
A few days before we met, I sent him some questions and now I’ve decided to share them with you, because the answers are too beautiful to be kept secret. This interview is dated June 7, 2018.
Some heroes are “paper people”, some other are real. Why are you so fascinated by comics?
That’s a question I’m still answering, so my answer now isn’t complete, and maybe it never will be. But I’ve discovered a few things. One is that I’m fascinated by things that make me ask why I am fascinated by them. They are things whose horizons continually get farther away the closer I go towards them. I love that. Poetry, hockey, comic book heroes in the “outside world”, my best friendships and my loves in mine.
But you are asking about comics. I’ve just sent a draft for a chapter in an upcoming anthology about this along the lines of what I looked for in the idealized bodies of superheroes. They represented a clearer view of good in action, of the good male body in action than any real male figure could show me, even my father, who was his own source of fascination, showing me part of what I wanted to be and part of what I did not. I don’t know how widespread that relationship is between boys and Superman and the rest of the heroes made in his image, but they gave a lot of focus to what it meant to be a man and morally good.
If that were only it, though, my connection would have died out, I think. I am also fascinated by the way that the word and the image become one aesthetic experience that does something neither of them does alone. An exploration of this is not new either — in North America, practitioners like Will Eisner and Scott MacCloud have done a lot of work on it (though I disagree with their conclusions about the nature of the gutter, the “empty space” between panels that supposedly give the reader room to make the pictures come alive). Regardless of that, the pictures are alive in a particular way.
I had an experience yesterday in the Basilica in Bologna that I think I’ll carry with me in my further thinking on the matter. My wife and I walked the church, looking in on each chapel, pondering the altar, the relics, the statuary, and just as we were about to leave, the organist started to play — and the whole world within the vault changed. Considering a statue while the music was filling the resonant air was like looking at a moving figure, not because it was moving, but because, in receiving the music, I was while the figure was still. The experience has a thrill to it that it didn’t have in silence. And I think that’s like what happens in the relationship between comics at their best — when the act of reading and the act of seeing are brought together; I am drawn in by a kind of motion created by stillness.
In “Fathers never leave you”, your first book dated 1987, you already wrote about your father. And he held your book next to his “literary heroes”. How do you feel about it?
I was honoured. My father was telling me many things in that little stack of books. I see much of what he chose to do as he was dying as my father’s last lessons in poetry. Poetry is never simple. I was honoured because I knew that book was his favourite of mine; he was telling me it belonged on the same shelf as his most treasured books. But though we read from Thomas and Dickens, we never opened Fathers to read any of its poems; they were there, but they were silently there, and he left me to figure that out. Sometimes a thing is poetic because a poem is involved, but not involved by being read. There was also the puzzle of my father dying, leaving me, side by side with a title that said, on the surface, he could not. And of course, he hasn’t — but he hasn’t left me precisely because now he is gone.
“On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood” depicts your father like a warrior, tired of fighting at the last part of his life, still remembering and rewriting (more than reciting) the poems that he loved the most. The verses changed meaning in that context, so, poems have become a sort of language and the words of Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas a part of your own conversation. Will you ever be ready to “give to the air” your father’s ashes? What are you still learning from him?
My father’s ashes still rest on a shelf in my living room — most of them. On my way to Italy, I had the chance to read at Oxford about a week ago. When I graduated from university, I was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. But I did not win one of the two on offer in my province, so I studied elsewhere. My father has always been proud of me, of my work, but I never saw a greater pride in his face than when he, an old soldier of the British Empire, thought his son was going to go to one of the jewels of his country. So I took a small part of the last part of the earth that was him to Oxford with me and it rests there, in a place he would have loved for me but neither of us saw while he was alive.
The Alberta flood of 2013 was the most damaging of the state, and Calgary was devastated. The water washes away the meaning from the books and the postcards. It makes disappear, just like the illness of your father did with his memory. Can you tell me something about that terrible event and about that 48 hours in which you couldn’t find your father’s ashes?
I don’t remember now being the length of time it was. It was like any search, at first: a lot of frantic not-finding. But the flood was still with us at the time, there was so much work to do to save our houses from the water seeping up into them, so we had to stop looking pretty quickly. I remember going through a period of thinking “They are not lost.” Then a period of “They are gone.” And then having to live with the reality that if they were gone, they would be present in me anyway, the way my father himself was still with me after he died. Or if they returned, the story of their return would be another gift. Interesting, now that you’ve asked this, I’m thinking a lot these days about holding together at once (at least) two incompatible propositions, ideas, images and feeling that special uncertainty in the mind. In some ways that feeling is the feeling of a poem before it is written. And that time when my father’s ashes were neither present nor lost feels like the longest time I’ve had that experience. Maybe that’s why it is the founding principle of the book.
You are a beloved father and husband, and this naturally influence your work. During a public speech you said that the purpose of poetry is to make language new. When your daughter was just a little child, experimenting for the first time the production of phonemes and words, you discovered the pleasure of learning a new language. How did you translate it into poems?
That translation is the book Big Breath of a Wish, and, in brief, it’s two dialogues. The first is me recording my daughter’s birth and her growing up, with all the attendant responses and reactions that I have. The second is her developing language — an act I think of as her inventing it — from the first sounds she makes to the sentences she is speaking by the end of the book. So on one hand, I am trying to describe her development of language for the first time in my old language with all its polished conventions and history, and on the other, I am trying to capture the sound of that new language in all its phases using letters that aren’t built for that purpose. I spent a lot of time trying to babble like she did, or form what we think of as proto-words to capture that sound. The process made me aware of linguistic development on one hand, and it opened my ear to the complexities of Futurist, Dadaist, and Sound Poetry on the other.
Your point of view sometimes seems like a zoom that amplifies the small things of everyday life. “Every life is a kind of writing” you say, even when you are talking about a honeybee. Your poems are photographs of your consciousness, and they reflect much about the meaning of writing itself. Did you find an answer to the question “what is a poem?” and why do we need to create or to read them?
First question: no. I have lots of definitions of poetry or poem—ask my students. Every second lecture or workshop, I start a sentence with “Poetry is all about …” or “Poetry is…” and fill in the blank with something new. They think it’s funny. So do I. I also think it’s part of the beauty of the poem. You can fill in that blank with something new every day, and somehow poetry will make it right. But it will depend on the day.
Why do we need to create or read them? Again, another small question with a long answer, but in the end I think poetry fills our need to make meaning out of our experience. That need is filled by many arts, of course, but in poetry, the experience we want to make meaning of is twofold: we want to make meaning out of our experience of life, and we want to make meaning out of our experience of language. And poetry does both at the same time.
You are a teacher at the Mount Royal University and you teach creative writing. How do you encourage your students and what kind of exercises must they do?
I teach them to write with the same method that I use. I can explain it when we meet, but I think teaching creative writing (like teaching any art) is first a matter of teaching people how to get out of their own way, to clear the path of the obstacles we bring with us. Once that happens, you can teach people the techniques of people who’ve been creative before them, or are so around them now.
What are your favourite poets (Borges really changed my way of perceiving poetry)? Do you like the contemporary literature of your Country?
A few old and constant favourites in poetry, in no particular order: Patrick Lane, Sharon Olds, di brandt, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, William Stafford, Dylan Thomas, Michael Ondaatje.
I am very much enjoying contemporary Canadian literature. The 1960s was a burst of literary creativity that gave us great writers like Gwendolyn MacEwan, Al Purdy, Patrick Lane, Robert Kroetsch, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood. The contemporary scene is a new outpouring of writing from old sources and new. Our prose work these days is excellent, including Cherie Dimaline, John Vaillant, and Marcello Di Cintio. In poetry, I think of Shane Koyczan, Weyman Chan, Louise Halfe, Dionne Brand, di brandt, Patricia Young, Billy-Ray Belcourt, I could go on.
There’s a lot of the right energy in these new works, a lot of the right impatience with the past and hope for the future in it. And a lot of poetry that is making Canada both write and listen more broadly than it has in the past. In my country, now is a very good time to love poetry.
If you’re interested in his latest book: 25: hockey poems, new and revised.
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