Spring Collections: Echo Gods and Silent Mountains by Patrick Woodcock

April is National Poetry Month, and in the coming weeks, CBC Books will be celebrating the occasion with a Spring Collections special: each week, we'll showcase a recently published book of poetry with a Q&A with the author, and a sample poem from the collection.

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To kick off the series, we're putting the spotlight on Patrick Woodcock's new collection, Echo Gods and Silent Mountains, published by ECW Press. Patrick Woodcock's work has been published in Canada, the U.S., England, India, Colombia, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other countries, and has been translated into 11 languages. Always Die Before Your Mother, his previous book, was shortlisted for Canada's Relit Award for poetry in 2010.

He currently resides in the small Dene community of Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories.

Echo Gods and Silent Mountains, Patrick's eighth collection, is the first of three books written over a two-year span (from December 2008 to December 2010) in the Kurdish north of Iraq. In spare, lyrical language, he offers a poetic account of his own experiences and a portrait of the people he encountered, and their land, culture and history. Once the target of Saddam Hussein's oppressive policies and aggression, the region is now enjoying a rebirth as a Kurdish state.


     Zakho Bridge

He couldn't have been older than eight. Sitting and shaking.

     His little feet hanging over the edge. He is being pushed

by his friends, by their words, their hands.

     It is not necessarily the distance of the fall here.

There is just no room for error. Two feet to the left and you

     will hit the rocks. Two feet to the right, the same.

 Even the teenagers who jump pause for a moment,

     look around and bellow obscenities as they plummet.

On the east side of the river there is a restaurant where patrons clap

     when someone jumps. From where they sit

they can't see the entry. But who cares. It's the act

     they celebrate, not the outcome. On the west

 side of the bridge there is another restaurant with other patrons,

      other hands and a better view. We are all

in various states of awe watching these young men flirting with death.

     The poor child looks so terrified that my friend

and I decide to give him a little peace. We walk to the end

     of the bridge where there are busts in commemoration

of two Kurdish artists martyred by Saddam's regime. They

     are carved out of white stone and look peaceful.

Zakho's cloudless blue sky rests behind them. Ardawan

     Zakhoy, pray for the little boy.

Ayaz Yosif, guide him down safely.



Q: What brought you to northern Iraq?

PW: I had initially wanted to move to Iran but there were too many problems -- too many barricades being thrown up that would have cost me several months of lost time. I knew I wanted to move to the Middle East and get a break from the celebratory abandon of living in Colombia, so when I saw there was a chance to move to Iraq I took it. In the end it was just a natural continuation of what I have been doing for years. I needed a drastic change and obviously that is what I got. I also had very little knowledge of the region, its art and history -- which is always exciting.

Q: You're writing about a part of the world that most Canadians know very little about. Why write poems about it, rather than non-fiction?

PW: I want to write poetry for a variety of reasons. First of all, I simply love the art form. It is the one constant that guides me through life -- and also what lifts me out of bed when I feel spent and deflated.

I am interested in countries that are going through periods of rebirth or reconstruction. Most non-fiction in these types of locations become dated far too quickly. I have never read a book of non-fiction and then wanted to move to the country it was written about. But how can you read Yesenin or Mayakovsky and not want to move to Russia?

And lastly, poetry allows you to explore the broad canvas of the page and manipulate space, language and rhythm. It lets you capture a moment that would be lost on lesser eyes while letting its beauty come forth in a way that non-fiction is incapable of. In the words of Louis MacNeice, it lets you "...feel / the drunkenness of things being various."

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Q: You write some of the poems from your own perspective as an outsider. In other, you assume the voice of people you met, and tell their stories that way. What do the different approaches offer?

PW: Many years ago I decided that if I wanted to write I had to travel. I had to leave my comfort zone and test myself while collecting and recording as many sights, sounds, smells and tastes as possible. Form could wait a while and be studied later -- collecting content was all I cared about. Sometimes when I wrote I was an outsider -- especially when a new language came into play. But the longer I lived in one location, the less of an outsider I felt. The voices in many of the pieces I have written are shaped by my interaction with my friends and colleagues and how open they felt about discussing very serious, or at times, incredibly juvenile, topics with me. If someone I wanted to write about became distant or reserved I would sketch a picture of them, but if they were a close friend and we had spent months talking openly, I knew I could switch the shape of the narrative and the voice of the narrator.

Q: How did you come to write the poem Zakho Bridge? What was its genesis?

PW: Zakho Bridge is in the small city of Zakho (right on the Turkish border.) I was lecturing at their university during the day which was about a 30-minute walk through the barren sandscape to the official city checkpoint. Since most of my friends did not live at the university, I would walk into the city to meet them in the evenings when the sun was down and temperatures were bearable. Everyone seemed to gravitate to the bridge at some point of the day to watch the young men jumping. Zakho Bridge is stylistically the simplest piece in my book -- it required no ornament. There is absolutely no railing along the bridge; it is a terrifying thing to cross, especially when you are being blinded by the sun or walking across it in the late evening, when it's unlit.

Q: What's your favourite poetry book (aside from any of your own)?

PW: This is impossible to answer and a good reason why I have stayed away from tattoos. What I love one day inevitably changes the next. But a few constants would be Stéphane Mallarmé's Collected; Yevtushenko's 20th Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel -- the finest anthology I have ever read (I carried it like a bible in Moscow); and anything by Robert Lowell and Joseph Brodsky. Maybe it is because of where I live now, but I have been reading Peter Trower a lot again. I forgot how great he is.

Q: And finally: complete the phrase "Poetry is..."

PW: Poetry is chance, fermenting.



Additional material:

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The photo above is of Zakho Bridge. Click here for more photos of Patrick's time in northern Iraq.

Check out Patrick Woodcock's readings of The Sandstorm and White Boots on YouTube.