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Patrick Lane discusses Selected Poems by Alden Nowlan

Selected Poems by Alden NowlanCanada Reads Poetry is a three-week online initiative presented by CBC Books and the National Post. Inspired by the original Canada Reads format, Canada Reads Poetry features five panelists defending five collections of poetry. That's where the similarities end; while Canada Reads plays out on-air, Canada Reads Poetry plays out online.

Q: In the introduction to Selected Poems by Alden Nowlan, you say that you and Alden were very good friends. What was your relationship like?

A: We got to know each other back in the 1960s. I went back east in 1966. I'd already heard of his work. I read some of his poems in early collections. I remember going to Expo 67 and taking a train across Canada and deciding to keep on going once the big show was over in Montreal. I headed out to the Maritimes and went to Fredericton, and Alden was there. I knocked on his door. We got together and I stayed for a few days. We had a good time. We stayed in touch off an on all those years. I'd see him when I was in the Maritimes. He rarely came out west, where I was from. He was very much a regionalist. He was very disdainful of central Canada. Like most regionalists, he felt that the centre had too much power and didn't care much for small towns. That was his attitude and while it wasn't necessarily right, there's some truth to it!

Q: Why do you think he was a regionalist? You mention in your introduction that Alden was labelled a regional poet, and that this label did a disservice to his work. Why do you think this?

A: We are defeated by our geography in this country, and often one of the problems Alden had was so often his work would be described by a critic in Toronto as regional work. He was from the regions, he was not a central poet and he wasn't a major poet. Of course, everyone else in the United States, in England and in Western Canada thought he was a seriously major poet of the latter half of the 20th century. But, for some reason, central Canada always thought of him as a "poet from the Maritimes." It's like when a woman poet is called a "woman poet" instead of just a "poet." It marginalizes the person they are talking about. Alden felt much the same way when he was referred to as a "poet from the Maritimes."

Q: Does Alden's work represent all of Canada, then?

A: He was a Canadian poet. Quintessentially and perfectly Canadian. There's a famous American poet called Elizabeth Bishop who spent her childhood years in Nova Scotia, and wrote about that most of her life. But she's by and large considered to be not a regional poet at all. One of Alden's poems, "Canadian Love Song," demonstrates this. It is so quintessentially a Canadian poem, and quintessentially a Canadian love poem. We're one of the few countries that actually experiences winter. Most countries don't have that experience at all. The northern United States does, Canada, the Scandinavian countries and Russia are about the only countries that understand what a solid, deep winter is, with four or five months of snow and blizzards and cold. This creates in us an insularity and a sense of commonality that's a bit different than in other countries. Alden talks about that in his poetry and expresses it exquisitely.

Q: Why are you such a fan of his work?

A: I'm one of thousands of fans of his work. I don't think there is anyone, really, who is ever immune to the sweet sensitivity of this man. His ability to express the deepest sentiments without being sentimental is unmatched. Sentimentality is the failure of feeling and I don't think there is anyone who can express deep heartfelt meaning without falling into the trap of being false, sentimental and sloppy. In his poem "A School for the Retarded," he sits down with the kids and his awkwardness with them. But then he can talk about love and the hardness of growing up poor in Nova Scotia and the poverty in the Maritimes.

He comes from the deepest part of our culture, the ordinary working people of this country. He's not from any kind of privilege or background. Alden grew up dirt poor, barefoot poor. Rubber-boot poor. No socks. He experienced the deepest feelings that our country has to offer and he talks about it gloriously. Alden has poems about the First World War and the Second World War that are astonishing. They are among the greatest poems about war that have ever been put to paper. And Alden himself never went to war. He was never a soldier. And yet he understands and expresses that beautifully, I think in part because he grew up during the Second World War. He was a little older than me, not much, but he was a child of that war and he understood it really, really well.

There is no one like him anywhere. His language and his way of expressing himself is incredibly simple. It is very, very hard to express our deepest feelings with simplicity. We have the tendency to wander off into abstractions about complex big ideas. Alden doesn't do that. He brings us down to simple things. He talks about Georgie and Fenwood Cranston, unmarried bachelors in their 30s who live with their parents on a potato farm. He writes about these people and raises them up to become emblems of a larger world. They become symbolic men, women and children, lovers and friends, the lost and lonely and the gloriously happy people. He writes about them all. No one can touch the world like Alden does. I have wept at Alden's poetry. I have read it aloud at public readings. I have celebrated his work all my life. I think he's marvellous.

Patrick LaneQ: How did this collection of Alden's work come about?

A: We were asked to put this collection together. We had both written about him before and [House of Anansi Press] approached us and said they wanted to put out a collection of Alden's work. They asked us if we would put it together. I was really, really honoured to do so. Alden Nowlan's first selected poems was published by a small press in upstate New York in the late 1960s and I printed that book. I hadn't met Alden at that point, but I printed that book on an offset printer and I got to know Alden's poems very intimately because I got to print page after page after page and then put them together into the book.

We read through all his work. We got all his books out, read through them and chose the poems that we thought were the significant pieces of his oeuvre, the pieces that stand out for a long time to come. These are the ones that are really going to live for a long, long time. Picking them out wasn't easy because there are so many difficult poems. I say in the introduction, in my little foreword, that it's fair to say that Alden is one of the beloved of this earth. I knew him as such, and I treasure his memory and the moments we had together, talking about poetry and life. Whether I was sitting together [with him] in his living room, sharing a glass of gin or a beer with him and [his wife] Claudine, or sitting with him 4,000 miles away, his poems spoke softly to me, moving me to a place as close to the heart as anyone has. And I thank him for that. And I'll thank him for that for a long time. I was very saddened by his death. I miss him still.

Q: Do you have a favourite Alden Nowlan poem?

A: I could pick out any poem! Any one at all. I'll pick the one about his son Johnny, a lovely boy. I remember meeting him when he was just a child. He writes a little thing called "Johnny's Poem." I think it captures what Alden tried to do in his own life. The Johnny in the poem is as much himself as he is his child. That's as good a poem as any he ever wrote. You write about what you feel the deepest and hardest. I love that it ends on the word "hardest." You've got to be somewhere in your heart and soul to not just find the hardness in you but to know how hard it is to find that deep place and to trust it and be honest about it. Honesty is something that be believed in.

Q: What influence did Alden's work have on your own work as a poet and writer?

A: Probably quite a bit, to be honest with you. I first read him back in the 1960s. I found a voice I could trust and a style I could trust. I think of the three poets that were a strong influence on me when I was a young poet, and that would be Alden, Milton Acorn and Al Purdy. All of them espoused the voice of the people and the voice of ordinary men and women. But ordinary is a dangerous word. It's like normal. There isn't anybody out there who is normal and there isn't anybody out there who is ordinary. Those men, more than anyone else, were the greatest influence on my own work. In some ways, they gave me permission to explore the men and women that I'd grown up with, the men and women in the backcountry, the sawmill towns and the mining towns.

I remember writing a poem once and the men I'd worked with 10 years before in a sawmill came to my reading. Well, they came to the door and I made them come in. We were going to meet after at the bar, but I made them come in. They weren't ready to come to a poetry reading, they were doubtful. They thought poetry readings were for weird people. Anyway, they came and were astonished to hear themselves appearing in a poem. They said, "You wrote about us!" They were amazed that they could be a subject of a poem. Poems were always about somewhere else. They were about England and Europe and America. They weren't about small, northern towns in British Columbia or the Miramichi River in the backcountry of New Brunswick. But that's what Alden did. They gave me permission to express my life with those people instead of reaching outside myself and trying to sound like somebody else. They said, "Trust your own voice. The voice you were born with. There's no voice like it in the world."

Q: Why did Alden become a poet?

A: Oh, I don't know. Why does anyone become a poet? What an odd thing to choose to do with your life. I don't know, I never asked him that question. It never occurred to me to ask that question. I don't know why I became a poet. I started writing poetry and became very dedicated and disciplined and obsessed with trying to express a big thing in a small space. I think Alden was much the same. He was a man of letters, he wrote for newspapers and magazines. He wrote widely and broadly. But his first and only love was poetry, just the way mine is the same. It's the purest form for language and living. I think that's how Alden found it as well.

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