Finding the Form with John Steffler
My most recent book is a collection of essays and poems called Forty-One Pages. I wanted to work in a loose essay form, in this case, because I wanted to expand my focus and include what lies outside the edges of individual poems – the issues, the planning and daydreaming that precedes and follows them. I wanted to write about writing and language, to step back behind the process itself and think about how it works for me.
I tend to approach genres as labels applied after the fact rather than as prescriptive building codes. I blur genres. I try to create a form that enacts the imagined thing. Some of the essays in Forty-One Pages I thought of as prose poems as I was writing them.
And yet, approaching artmaking as an exercise within the guidelines of a genre can be liberating or enabling. Perhaps while one part of the mind is focused on formal conventions, another part of the mind is freed to access subconscious intentions. Setting to work in a genre can be like invoking the muse, drawing on the vision, the imaginative stance and accumulated energies of generations of poets or artist who have left a legacy in that genre.
Perhaps. And yet I put genre in the background.
As I was writing what became The Afterlife of George Cartwright, I referred to the project as a “thing” not a novel. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to write a novel. It was only after it was finished that I started calling it a novel, for practical reasons.
My next book, called And Yet, is a straight-up collection of poems that will be published by M&S in the fall of 2020.
I like poetry’s sculptural, three-dimensional quality: words combining to form an object that stands free in space. This sculptural quality is at the heart of poetry’s musicality, I think. Poetry’s music is not so much about the sound of the words as about the fact that a song or a piece of music is also a chronological sequence that hangs free in space on a trajectory from singer or musician to listener. The musicality in a poem is in the sequencing of parts spatially and chronologically – the patterns, tensions, delays, contours, protracted curves. It comes into the ear this way or runs down the page this way as a performance.
I wanted my poems in Issue 153 of The New Quarterly to work as self-contained sequences, performances – hanging free in space.
John Steffler was Canadian Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2009. His latest book is Forty-One Pages: on Poetry, Language and Wilderness (URP, 2019).