Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Interview With Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 35 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including Letter of the Master of Horse, War & Other Measures, The Terracotta Army, No Easy Exit, The Celebrated Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, and his most recent collection, Swimming Ginger. He has been awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, The Lieutenant Governor's award for Literary Excellence. the Gabriella Mistral Prize, The National Poetry Prize, and The E.J. Pratt Medal and Prize for Poetry, among many others.

TT - In the forward to Swimming Ginger you mention that a copy of the Quingming Shanghe Tu scroll came into your possession on the banks of the Yangtze River, just after September 11th 2001. What was your initial response to it? Was that response coloured by current events? If so, in what way?

Gary Geddes - I was quite speechless when I opened that scroll alongside the Lesser Gorges in China. The history of Chinese art, as I knew it, was all misty landscapes and distant mountain peaks. Nature, mostly. So a highly detailed urban realism seemed to me rather miraculous.
Having heard of the attacks on New York the day I was riding on a donkey cart through Gaocheng, the ruins of an ancient Muslim city in western China that was covered and rendered uninhabitable by desert sand, I was particularly sensitive to images of destruction; so, the Qingming scroll had a double impact on me, especially when I learned that the city of Bianliang, which it is sometimes said to represent, was trashed shortly after by the invading Jin. And, of course, time, the great ravager, and fire, would have done their thorough work regardless.

TT- ‘Silk River’ begins with the artist tending his carrots when news of the Emperor’s commission arrives, and ‘Another Nine for Qu Yuan’ passes on Voltaire’s advice to “cultivate your garden.” All the poems in this collection share a disillusionment in the face of knowledge about the world, and something of the loss of an ideal place. How much of your own world view is reflected here?

Gary Geddes - I think my awareness of injustice, the imbalance between poor and rich, those who represent privilege and power, has always played a role in my poetry, doubtless a product of growing up rather poor and dysfunctional in the working-class world of Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

TT - The narrator of ‘Marginalia’ says, “I stalk the margins.” Swimming Ginger as a whole does the same, dealing, for the most part, with marginalised characters, the rogues and rascals of the picaresque tradition, commenting as they do, on a less than ideal society, in humorous detail. Do you believe in the power of satire, or of literature in general, as an instrument for political change?

Gary Geddes - I like the idea of micro- rather than macro-history, focussing on those who have fallen between the cracks. I think this is reflected throughout Swimming Ginger, though my aim was to write good poems, not political tracts. Who knows how much impact poetry has these days on the shape of history. I believe, as Frank Kermode suggests, that the function of poetry is "to make history strange." I also believe that all writing is persuasive at some level, that it's a branch of rhetoric. I have just published a book of essays called Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry & Narrative (Kalamalka Press in Vernon), where these ideas are given more coherent and expanded form. James Scully has said that the term "political poetry" is not a contradiction in terms, but an "instructive redundancy." which is similar to what I've said above. On the other hand Yeats argued that he used rhetoric for his argument with the world; and poetry, for his argument with himself. The debate goes on. Meanwhile, there is the dimension of language, technique. A poet must have more than content driving his work; and I hope that I have invented a few original tropes and turned some memorable phrases along the way.

TT - You refer to Samuel Johnson’s poem on the 10th satire of Juvenal – The Vanity of Human Wishes - in your comments about the figures of the terracotta army. What struck me was the way you share Johnson’s apparent sympathy with his subjects. Such a vast army buried underground has to stand as the ultimate comment on human futility and the quest for greatness but you look at the soldiers as individuals with stories to tell. The same is true in Swimming Ginger. You choose a few characters out of the great crowd swarming across the scroll, and let them tell their stories. Johnson’s work had a moral. What were you aiming at when you picked the individuals out of the mass and let them speak?

Gary Geddes - I had no single aim in writing Swimming Ginger. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the scroll, so I waited and let the figures come to me when they were ready. Meanwhile, I read more about Chinese history during the Sung and later periods, which gave me both information and ideas of how to proceed. The artist's long spiel came first, then the other sections. I also became aware of my own age and narrowing options, which are perhaps reflected in "Nine More for Qu Yuan." If you read The Terracotta Army alongside SG, you will see how the two books complement each other, playing with the links between art and politics.

TT - You’re known as a political poet but much of your work doesn’t seem particularly political. Is it the case that in some situations simply focusing on the individual makes a political statement?

Gary Geddes - I never thought of myself as a political poet, only someone concerned about social inequities and injustice. Wordsworth's "Daffodils" sounds like a manifesto now in the face of environmental degradation. And the love poems of Kahil Gibran seem to me the only answer to problems in the Middle East. How do we begin to love and respect one another. I just spent parts of a year in sub-Saharan Africa interviewing victims traumatized by war, rape and violence, wondering how they dealt with the pain and anger, how they managed to heal themselves. This journey will come out as non-fiction, but it is all part and parcel of my particular way of relating to the world. So, yes, I do see poetry as a healing art. We are all wounded, broken at some level; poetry speaks to the wound in us, and in society.

TT – Any final words about the poetic enterprise? At least your part in it.

Gary Geddes - We all write what is given to us to write. I wander the world, including the little watery world I now inhabit on Thetis Island, looking, paying attention to people, objects, places. Some of them demand my attention more than others. A few even take me by the throat and demand to have their stories told. I am a compliant fellow; sometimes I do what I'm told.
Art touches me as much as anything. Its beauty, its forms. That it survives seems to me both astonishing and magical. I hope one or two of my own creations will suffer the same fate. If not, I hope they will make someone else's passage more meaningful. I'm too close to these poems to say anything very valuable about them; they happened to me, but I am only beginning to feel where they work and where they feel too thin. Now and then I'm surprised and delighted by what I find.

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