Guest Writers / On Writing

Bruce Meyer – Poet, Writer, Teacher

Ahhh. National Poetry Month. Doesn’t it feel good to have a month recognized on a national scale all for poetry?! It sure feels warm and fuzzy to me! I think it’s been a busy, productive and culture-enriching month so far. To further enrich us in the all things poetry, I’ve invited guest *POET* Bruce Meyer to answer some intimately, hard-hitting questions about poetry and his writing life. Bruce is a poet, a teacher, a lover (madly!) of books (he has a crazy library filled with books!), a father, a husband…and he is passionate about poetry as you will soon find out. He also compiled a list of the Top 100 Poems (in his humble and extremely knowledgable opinion) that I will post in a separate post to continue to celebrate this fine month of poetry. Yes folks, this is a double-whammy post all for you!!

AND – I will be giving away a *FREE* copy of Bruce’s latest book of poetry, The Obsession Book of Timbuktu – read right to the end so you can find out how to WIN. (You’re welcome.)

Let’s do this, shall we?

1) When did I first start writing poetry?

I taught myself to read at the age of three using that little table with the alphabet around the edge that I wrote about in Alphabet Table. I wrote my first poem at five. I think I was inspired by A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” that I got as a present for my fifth birthday and read to myself over and over. I also loved a book by Richard Scarry titled “The Funny Bunny Factory.” I hated talking animals and these rabbits didn’t talk. They were on a quest, and one by one they were made errant. Only one got to the grail, the big room full of carrots. My mother read me Wordsworth from some little John Drinkwater anthologies that she had in the living room. My grandmother read me Longfellow and my grandfather supplied me Robert Service. Poetry was something they held in esteem. I wanted to be a poet. The first poem I wrote was for a friend of my grandmother’s, Gertrude was her name, who came to visit. I wrote it on the back of a sheet of a kitchen calendar pad. I had nicked a pencil from my Dad’s desk and wrote with that. Some of the letters were backward. Once I got the hang of writing poetry — the meter, rhyme, form and the just the natural music of the language, I couldn’t stop. I published my first in print poem at the age of ten, a poem titled “History — What a Mess!” and was paid $10 for it by the home and school association for their newsletter. Poetry paid well back then.

2) What do you think sets poetry apart from other genres of writing in terms how you can emotionally affect a reader? 

Poetry is set apart from other genres because it is the most visual form of language. Poetry is not just words. It is what the words do. They make pictures. I get on my students because they want to write with paper bags over their heads. Some of them write guff because of it and they fall in the kind of greeting card rubbish that is horrible. They deny the boundless possibilities of the art form. They disgrace the language. The students who honour the language write with their eyes open. They acquire as many tools as they can for their work bench. I continually teach them the necessity of exploring possibilities. I still want to become a university professor of English and Creative Writing…I haven’t given up hope for that. What I find is that my undergrads, at least most of them, possess this powerful sense to see things. The object then is to teach them to see things differently, to see things not simply as they are but as they are in conversation, visually, with other things. I teach them the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and the ways to enable their words to leap like sparks between concepts. Prose, especially fiction, is a much harder thing for me to do because it demands a logical mind. Poetry is unique in that it demands a mind that works in metaphorical logic — something far different. The good poetic eye is always looking for connections even if those connections between things are not essentially logical in the frame of linear logic. Rilke said to Franz Kappus, “write about the life of things.” Everything has something to say. Everything and everyone wants to be loved and to state love, and love is that element in something that links it to other things. Everything, as my teacher Northrop Frye used to say, is interrelated and interconnected. That’s what poetry does. It is the great connector.

3) Poetry has affected the masses in different ways over the years. It seems that there’s been shifts from a time when poetry was in the forefront of our bookshelves, and it was used as a means to cause people to think differently – even in the amount that we read it and accepted it as a meaningful, essential part of our culture…to a time when people make faces like it hurts to read it..Today, where do you think poetry exists in our culture and why? 

You know why that happened? It has to do with where we locate the seat of grammar in our minds. It used to be located in the area of our brains that controls logic, math, etc. Now it sits in our ears. We want to hear poetry but we’ll be damned if we’re going to read it. The other problem is that our minds don’t want to remember things. We live in a very brief reality where things go in one ear and out the other. Do you remember DOS commands? I learned them. I even got shot down at a job interview because I couldn’t explain what F8 used to do. Does anyone remember DOS? Nope. Okay, let’s take things on a more recent basis.  Can  you tell me what the lead item was on the news a week ago this evening when you were watching Mansbridge or Laflamme? No? See? We deal in tons of information these days. Info in, info out. That’s the story of our minds. Poetry wants to slow things down. Poetry deals in metaphors. Metaphors slow our brains down. Just ask the ancient Greeks. When they produced tragedies on the stage of Athens, they had to make the language as unmetaphorical as possible. That’s what ‘elevated’ language is…language that is purposefully unfigurative. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a news broadcast entirely in figurative language? We’d remember what we were told. Poetry is about memory and it is having a hard time today because we are trained from birth to be amnesiacs. Amnesiacs don’t question things, hence we have a generation of people who want to play video games and can’t remember what day it is (I call them the mushroom generation because they live in the dark or in their basements and don’t want to get out of their caves…Plato, please take note).  That world is a place without memory. And, as I said, poetry is about memory. I still remember poems I learned in Grades 1, 2 and 3. I remember heaps of Shakespeare. I carry poetry in my heart because I learned poetry by heart. We don’t want to engage our emotional memories nowadays. But when I am waiting for a bus in the middle of a snowstorm on a cold night I recite poetry to myself. It is far more fun and meaningful to me that my Blackberry or my Ipod.

4) How important is the reading/performance of poetry to the lifeblood of poetry in our culture? 

Well, you are talking to someone who was very involved in the American New Formalism. The New Formalists had a view that a) poetry had to revive received forms or traditional prosody and narrative but in the contemporary idiom; and b) it had to speak to people as performance, not just as something on the page. Modernism drove poetry into the page. The NF Post-Modernism (which was reflected in art in magic realism and in architecture with the classical revival style of Milton Grenfell and I.M. Pei) was aimed at engaging people in public dialogue. It wanted to remind people that there was more to life and art than minimalism and yackety yack formlessness. There is a big difference between an announcement that a train is going to be late and a triolet, sestina or sonnet. Modern poetry was the railway announcement. The New Formalism was the well-designed high-speed train. But even without the NF form and prosody, etc. there is still that imperative that really great poetry is a form of song, and that the natural musicality of language cannot be denied. Why? Because we remember songs more than we remember spoken language. When someone stands up and performs we are not just hearing the words: they are singing to us. The bardic tradition, Homer, is far from dead but it really could do with a larger audience.

5) Have you ever ready poetry via an electronic device – ie: a cellphone or an e-reader? Was the experience of the poetry different reading it in not a paper book form? Why or why not?

Yes and no. The device, regardless of what McLuhan says, is not the point. I carry poetry in my head. I write in my head. I hear the poem in my brain before I set it to paper. If a pigeon pooped a really good poem on my driveway or my wife’s car, it would still be a really good poem. The deliver mechanism is a red herring in any discussion of poetry. That’s what I hate about the technological age (I still write poetry in a notebook with a fountain pen and real ink). Technology wants to assert supremacy over idea. I have students who know how to work every program and gadget imaginable but if I ask them to turn off their devices and solve a riddle or write a poem, they are dumbfounded. Media is NOT the message. McLuhan was watching TV. He never had to learn Word or fix problems with Windows or cope with crashes of technology. The form of delivery is taking mastery over content and that’s why we can’t remember things or are turning our backs on poetry. That’s why we have trouble finding our hearts and learning how to listen to them. A work of art is the conversation of form and content, but the content is the most important element in the two; and really great content is about the intersection of unexpected experiences — haiku recognizes that and so do really great poems (and that’s John Ruskin speaking here). Technology permits no intersection because it is based on codes and programs, and truly great intersections of ideas and experiences are about breaking codes and things entering our experience that by rights should not be there at that moment but are. That’s what makes for a great poem. Great poems are theoretically the antithesis of technology, not just in this way but in so many other ways.

6) You recently created a list of the top 100 books of poetry – what prompted you to make this list? How long did it take you to compile it?

People aren’t reading. If they do read, they don’t know what to read. Every week I get about three emails from strangers asking me what they should read. I used to go to bookstores (first and second hand bookstores) and read through the shelves. I would ask other poets “what should I read.” That kind of experiential shared education in literature is essential to the learning experience of literature but technology won’t allow us to read shelves. I’m still waiting for an on-line bookstore that will do that. Instead, go toamazon.ca and type in South American Poetry and you’ll get Uncle Remus stories from the “Old South.” Technology tells us that our only options are what technology will permit us to have. I-Tunes won’t let me have an electronic version of an organ and bagpipe recording I have which contains the Seikalos song, the oldest complete melody in Western culture. Search for it on I-Tunes and a lot of dumb country music pops up. Why? Because that’s what I-Tunes tells you you must have. I get annoyed that technology is supressing, among other things, both desire and curiosity through its constant reminders to us of its own limitations, some of which are driven not my access to information but by pure greedy marketing.

7) Show us the list!

The list is life. Forthcoming.

8)  Why do you write poetry?

Because I can’t stop. I get physically ill when I can’t write down an idea or develop a poem. It is probably a form of something bad in my head…Malcolm Gladwell, who was a year or two behind me at Victoria College, has said that if you want to be good at something you should do it for 10,000 hours. But when you have done something for 10,000 hours and become good at it it becomes part of you, part of who you are, in the same way that breathing is part of who you are…not merely just a bodily function for survival. It is something that sustains you, that feels good, that you miss when it isn’t there. Poetry writing is about me being me. It is what I do. I feel as if I am a better person when I write a good poem because I’ve achieved something (even if I’m the only one to recognize it) that says I overcame a challenge, that I solved a problem, that I perceived a possibility, and that I have made and made to live beyond me. An artist should not expect fame or money or even a roof over his head for doing what he does. All he can expect is that moment of proof that he has done something that sustains a fleeting moment in the generous expanse of time and reality, and shored that moment and that experience against all the negative forces in the universe that would deny it meaning and importance. And even if that moment is only for that artist, it is a small victory. It is the victory of snatching possibility from the jaws of impossibility.

****

Well then. If you aren’t dabbing your eyes with a tissue or your sleeve or if you haven’t pulled out a piece of paper and a pen to take notes from this incredible conversation then golly – we’ve got ourselves a big problem here. Perhaps you’re inclined and *totally inspired* to write a poem? Or read a poem? Or write many poems and ready many more? I certainly hope so. Not just this month, but from this point on!

THANK YOU BRUCE MEYER!!

THE CONTEST

To win a free copy of Bruce Meyer’s book, please write a short poem (100-150 words) that includes the following words:

life

poetry

message

challenge

see

victory

Post this poem in the comments of this post with your first name included.

Winner will be announced May 1st.

AND be sure to stay tuned for Meyer’s list of 100 Books of Poetry – and another giveaway!

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