One of the great delights of being a contest adjudicator at TNQ is the opportunity to converse on the page with our winners once they are chosen. This year we had the pleasure of meeting a few of them in person as well at our Wild Writers Festival (one lived locally and another flew from Vancouver at her own expense) and to hear them lift the work from the page in their own voices.
Though my acquaintance with the writer Anne Marie Todkill, whose poem “Non sequitur” was the winner of our Occasional Verse Contest, remains virtual, I do have some sense of her personality as revealed through our exchanges as we prepared her poem for press and approached this interview. My sense is of an honest maker, a poet working earnestly at her craft, attentive to technique but hesitant to claim intention for effects arrived at intuitively. She has, it emerged, won three contests in the last two years: in addition to ours, Arc’s Poem of the Year and the Malahat Review’s Constance Rooke Prize for Creative Nonfiction. This coincidence triggered a discussion about the proliferation of literary contests and the possibility that they foster a particular aesthetic (we had both read with interest Arc’s special issue on contest culture, “Poet vs. Poet,” the Arc Poetry Annual 2012, where editor John Barton advances that view). I myself resist the idea that there is an archetypal contest poem: even a contest like ours, where the thematic focus narrows the field, has yielded unexpected variety in tone and form. Anne Marie was modest about her own success—“Winning [a contest] doesn’t make me imagine that my work is any better (or worse), but only that it happened to work well, in a particular field of entries, at a particular time, for a particular group of editors.”—and full of praise for other poets.
Each year the submissions to our Occasional Verse contest get us thinking again about what constitutes the form. Our invitation to submit suggests our interest in occasions both public and private, occasions that are occasions from the get-go (a birth, a wedding, a funeral…) and everyday events that become occasions by dint of the poet’s attention. Your poem “Non sequitur” addresses a particularly private occasion—a telephone conversation that marks, at least in retrospect, the end of a relationship. In fact, what we get is only one side of the conversation, and not even the conversation itself but the sensory experiences and attendant thoughts the poem’s speaker registers while on the phone. What made you think of an occasion so internal for our contest?
I’m not sure I can reconstruct my logic, but no doubt it was convoluted. I’d been intrigued by this contest for a while, and by TNQ’s accommodating definition of the form. I had a couple of other poems under construction that, had they been ready, might have been a more obvious fit for the contest, in that their titles begin with the word “on” in that mixed sense of “about” and “at the time of.” Perhaps that’s a linguistic test for occasional verse: at least, it calls up for me the oratorical posture I associate with the more public version of the form. Cecilia Kennedy’s “Gestures”—“on the death of Jack Layton”—is the purest example in the bunch, and at the same time it is confiding and personal, with that beautiful, poised turn to the matter of bicycle bells. The reader is implicitly addressed as a participant in the contemporary moment, but one also knows that the poem will wear well over time.
Perhaps it is fair to say that most poems are “occasioned” by an awareness of our one-way passage through time. It seems fundamental to me, the impulse to take note of that passage, to ensure its remembrance, to say “this happened in our time” or, more personally, “this happened in my time” or even just “this happened to me”— at which point I’m no longer sure how to distinguish between occasional verse and lyric. Anyway (and I’m clearly reasoning after the fact), if my poem qualifies as an occasional poem, perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a kind of address, and has a declared position in time: the private occasion coincides with a more general, contemporary, moment, which is the state of nature and our sociocultural responses to that state. Birdfeeding. Hand-wringing. The search for more satisfying mythologies. And the connections with others that these things imply.
In “Non sequitur,” a second occasion is, seemingly miraculously, juxtaposed to the first: the appearance of a kestrel in the periphery of the speaker’s visual field as she gazes out the window towards her bird feeder. This unexpected interloper, come to prey on the sparrows the speaker has “lured,” triggers a speculation about the relationship—whose totem might this beautiful but predatory bird be? Can you say something about your use of juxtaposition—of both images and linguistic fields—in this poem? of juxtaposition as a poetic tool more generally?
I find myself wanting to say something like, “Juxtaposition isn’t a tool, Grasshopper, it just arrives.” A juxtaposition is what occasioned the poem, and so using it wasn’t a decision separate from the impulse to write the poem. Still, the bird did arrive like a question. A flock of questions, really, to which I have no answers. As for the linguistic juxtapositions—I was getting nowhere trying to get that falcon across, the razor-sharp edge of its pose, until it dawned on me that this quality is captured in heraldry. A lexical pilfering then ensued.
Ah so, Master. As you say, the unexpected juxtaposition, not the phone conversation, is the occasion for the poem. The appearance of the falcon makes of the telephone conversation something portentous, and the poet’s mind begins to work on that. I think writers, and especially poets, do tend to look for pattern or meaning in what others might dismiss as coincidence. Perhaps what I was getting at in my question is the metaphoric impulse, the kind of conjuring that results from making connections between seemingly disparate things.
You use end rhyme in the poem as well, but stintingly. Hence it calls attention to itself. What were you after in making a rhythmic connection between “false migrations” and “sinister approximations,” “argent” and “regardant,” and in the closing couplet, “what I miss” and “if you’re reading this”?
I think the elements of rhyme, assonance, rhythm, and whatever else is going on is symptomatic of the fact that I often work on poems when I’m in motion—either driving alone, or walking the dog in a greenspace. (I do wonder how many people have seen me muttering to myself in either context.) A poem takes ages for me to write, and I need it to be mentally portable—in other words, I tend to write poetry by ear. I’m always nagged by the doubt, of course, that readers won’t hear the lines the way I do. Sometimes I find that what sounded good to me during a perambulation dries up like a beach stone on the page.
That last is a great metaphor. I’ve pocketed a lot of brightly-coloured beach stones only to have them turn dull as they dry. But not so here. You’ve given the poem the title “Non sequitur.” What sort of frame were you hoping to supply thereby?
Well, first, a decent on-the-occasion-of sort of title eluded me. I think the phrase “non sequitur” cropped up early, in response to the originating “problem” of the poem—a desire to make a friendly, off-topic observation in the middle of a tense conversation, and my excuse for not doing so. However it got there, the title seemed to me, once the poem was fully drafted, to sum it all up—the change in the relationship, the appearance of the bird, the disconnect between the conversation and what was going on in my head, the disparate discourses. The title might be a bit facile, but it stuck.
Okay, I feel a bit abashed at having inquired too closely about your strategies and intentions as a poet. Such questions are perhaps the readers to answer. What sort of reader do you hope to invoke beyond the particular reader to whom the poem addresses itself? Can you describe the kind of reader you are yourself for poetry? The kinds of poems that draw you?
I don’t want to write poems that work only within the universe of other poems. The reaction I often get to the word “poetry”—even from avid readers of novels and non-fiction—suggests that many people view the form with deep suspicion, expecting poems to be difficult, obscure, self-indulgent, and even downright arbitrary. The occasional verse contest provides one answer to that. The selection of entries published here [i.e. in the 2012 OV contest issue, #124] have what I look for as a reader of poetry: honesty, narrative, images that make you say, “Wow, that’s exactly it.” In Kate Timmer’s “Quietus,” for example, not only is there that fabulous “Inviolate tomb / of rhyme” but the perfectly drawn “where the mouse scarpers / away from your questioning finger.” There’s something so satisfying when a line in a poem matches your own experience but provides fresh and exact language for it. And let me dwell for a moment on Lisa Martin-Demoor’s “Easter at the Zoo for Agnostics,” which hooks me right away with “crazy / accidents” and then delivers such tender, close observation as the father tries to open his daughter’s eyes to the curiosities of the world and then, in a line space, takes care not to over-state them: “though only / / if the conditions are right, not here.” And then there’s the surprise of the glass pane, and of the coyote. An electric charge through the quotidian—that’s what I read poetry for.
You mentioned in one of our e-mail exchanges writers’ retreats you’ve attended: the Piper’s Frith writers’ retreat last year and the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, organized by Orion magazine, in Vermont this past summer. What do such retreats offer writers more generally, and what were your own significant take aways?
I’m working on a set of linked essays that are, as it happens, connected to one of the preoccupations in my poem: that is, the edge between “us” and “nature.” The pieces involve personal observation, research, and a fair amount of speculation about a particular and real place in rural Ontario. Whatever form I happen to be working in, though, poetry is a constant. It helps me to keep my language battery charged.