April is National Poetry Month, and CBC Books is celebrating the occasion with a Spring Collections special: each week, we showcase a recently published book of poetry with a Q&A with the author, and a sample poem from the collection. We've also got a special Spring Collections contest. We're giving away one grand prize of a Sony Reader Digital Book and a prize pack of three poetry books, and two additional prize packs of three poetry books. Go here for details on how to enter.
Today's featured poem is from Wells by Jenna Butler, published by the University of Alberta Press. It's an untitled passage from the section called "Home."
Spring brought out the hawthorn along the Common Road, brilliant
white and musky. Before the rain, that scent was almost animal in its
intensity, tiny blossoms flinging themselves bright and blind against
the sky. Only a good storm could stroke the desperation out of those
flowers. They became contrite then, as though they had thoroughly
blasted themselves on that one fever pitch of scent. They would hold
defiantly to their branches for a day or so afterward, and when they
fell at last, the old Shire horse would be brought out from Spring Hill
and the rickety old wagon would carry the workers down to the fields
to sow out the wheat.
The hawthorn's scent vanished overnight. The old mare, Seldom
Swift, plodded along in harness, and in the wake of her wagon came
the green rush of summer.
Jenna Butler was born in Britain, but has spent much of her life in western Canada. She's published a number of chapbooks in addition to her first full-length poetry collection, Aphelion (NeWest Press), which was nominated for the Alberta Book Awards Poetry Book of the Year in 2011. Butler is also the founding editor of Rubicon Press and teaches creative writing and literature at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton during the school year. During the summer, she and her husband live on a small organic farm in Alberta's north country.
Wells, Jenna Butler's second collection of poetry, is in part a response to her grandmother's descent into dementia: through a touching series of poems built on details from her grandmother's past, the poet attempts to restore her beloved gran's sense of self. But the poems are also a subtly nuanced meditation on the nature of memory itself, and the way in which memories are as much invention as recollection.
Q: The concept of "home" figures prominently in both your first collection and this latest one. Why is it such a major theme in your poetry?
JB: I come from a very mixed background, so I'm always interested in the places people call home and why. Is it possible to call more than one place home, to feel equally rooted in several different locations? Can you find home in people, as well as landscapes? It's a very generative topic. It gets people talking.
I'm also intrigued by the concept of identity. That's what Wells explores, especially -- how much of what we know about ourselves is real, is true, and how much is extrapolated or fabricated. We're all complicit in fabricating our own stories to some degree. But home, where we come from, is oddly outside of all that fiction. It anchors us, whether we want that or not. It's very hard to truly fictionalize yourself away from where you come from.
Q: Wells seems like a very personal collection, centred around your grandmother and her dementia, and reassembling her past, in a sense. Yet it's not a simple, straightforward chronicle of her experiences. Tell me about your approach.
JB: You're right -- it's not just a retelling of my grandmother's disappearance into senile dementia. I started off wanting to build a collection that would re-gift to her some of the language she was losing as her memory lapsed. But as I started sitting down and talking with other people who had gone through the same experience, I found myself wanting to honour those other stories I was hearing, too.
And then there was that underlying preoccupation with how we fictionalize ourselves, as I mentioned above, which I think everybody does, to a certain extent. We might not mean to. Some people create alternate identities for themselves; at other times, it's as simple as a parent retelling a story about your childhood that you don't remember, but after hearing it told, it becomes part of your own narrative. You don't have any concept of the event, but suddenly it is there, it is part of what defines you. I wanted to explore some of that abstraction around identity, as well as to honour those very particular stories I'd been told and had witnessed by watching my gran. That's why the narrative voice in Wells is so slippery -- it shifts between the poems, between "she" and "I" and "her" and "you." Sometimes it seems to be outside all of those. I wanted to tell something explicitly personal, but scaffold that story around a larger concept -- what really makes identity?
Q: In an author's note, you describe the collection as "an homage to all the things that underpin memory." What are you referring to?
JB: Well, there are the memories themselves -- the events we recall, the people, and the places we remember visiting. And then there are the sounds, tastes, and scents that are immediately evocative (I smell roses and I'm instantly back in my grandfather's country rose garden). But further to that, there are those stories we are told about ourselves and internalize over time. They're often childhood stories, things we were too young to remember. But when we're told those stories, they become a part of our own personal narratives. Then you add in the fictions people tell about each other and the stories we tell about ourselves...the over-exaggerations, the tall tales. Quite suddenly, "memory" becomes a vastly nuanced thing. There's nothing simple about it. And when memory goes, as through an illness such as Alzheimer's or dementia, all these very subtle ways we have of knowing ourselves disappear.
Q: How did you come to write the above passage, from the section "Home"? What was its genesis?
JB: One thing I knew for certain about the book was that if I set it in the rural farming village my grandparents hail from, the one I consider home when I'm back in England, it would undo me every time I tried to read from the collection. Their village has always been an anchor for me. When I was writing Wells, I transported the story to another place that came to mean a lot to me during the year I lived full-time in the U.K.: Wells-next-the-Sea. My gran loved the coast, and by moving the book's location to Wells, I suddenly had the chance to talk about her in the coastal landscape she cared so much for. It also gave me the distance I needed from my gran's real home.
The section you've singled out is one of the only pieces of the book that is based completely in her village, Mundham. I guess what's truly home always calls us back. The hawthorn is everywhere along those East Anglia lanes in the early spring, and it has this intense, musky, animal scent. And until a scant few years ago, there was still a horse-drawn farm wagon that would take the workers down to the fields. It passed by the back of my gran's house in the mornings. Perhaps because this is one of the only segments of the book that is completely based on her home, it's by far the closest to me. It still grabs me by the throat every time I read it.
Q: What is your favourite book of poetry (aside from any of your own)?
JB: There are so many! That's a tough question. It's more of a case of what my favourites are at any given time.
My old standby is Phyllis Webb's Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals. I've loved that book since I first read it. Webb's willingness to open the form, to see where an "Englished" version of the Persian ghazal could take her as a Western writer and as a woman, is very compelling. I like it, too, for not leaning so heavily on an overtly articulated narrative. You have to read the ghazal differently. You make emotive leaps between the lines instead of within the lines, as you'd do with a narrative poem or a story. That speaking of silence is something very appealing to me; it's what drove me to write Wells. How do you articulate the vanishing of memory and identity? And in Webb's case, can you construct a poem around the pauses in the poem; does silence have inherent speaking ability? She shows that silence can be a place for dialogue, and that it can be highly affective.
Q: Complete the phrase, Poetry is...
JB: ...what takes the top of your head off (to pilfer from Emily Dickinson...badly!). She actually said, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. Is there any other way."
When a poem speaks something I can intimately connect to, but in a way that is new and engaging, that takes the top of my head off, as it were, then that's poetry, to me. I'm with Emily all the way.
Want to check out the rest of the Spring Collections special? Here's the list of books featured so far:
Wells by Jenna Butler
Paradoxides by Don McKay
Rain; road; an open boat by Roo Borson
Echo Gods and Silent Mountains by Patrick Woodcock