A Room We Enter: Darren Bifford in conversation with Chelsea Rushton

Darren Bifford talks with Malahat volunteer, Chelsea Rushton about “Wolf Hunter,” winner of The Malahat Review’s 2010 FarHorizons Award for Poetry.

What is the appeal of wolf hunting for the speaker? Is it the thrill of the catch? The trip? The scenery? The thought of a new coat? Is it all these things? Or does it go deeper than all these things?

I think at a basic level the appeal of the hunt for this particular hunter is little more than the desire to kill a wolf. At least I didn’t have much more than that in mind when I began to write this poem. I imagined the speaker both stupid and arrogant, but not terribly so. I was more interested in the fact of an aerial hunt and what might be the subjective experience of one who had paid a good deal of money to fly north in order to kill a wolf. The poem was motivated by several NFB documentaries I’d spent some time watching—one of which included some aerial-hunting footage.

How far is the degree of separation between you, as the poet, and the poem’s speaker? What is the appeal of wolf hunting for you, and what is the appeal of writing about it?

I’d never pay to hunt wolves (or any animal) from the air. In fact I’d never hunt just for the sake of the trophy kill. I suppose I wrote about it because I felt a significant moral revulsion when I watched those films. I should also say that I’m simply interested in the dramatic lyric, and so when I caught the idea of writing a poem in the voice of this character, I decided to try my hand at it.

I wanted to bring out the speaker’s ignorance about the wolf—his inability to think about or acknowledge the wolf in any terms other than those given by his own anthropocentricism. In this sense I suspect I’m not that far from the wolf hunter as I’d wish to be. Like almost everyone I was born into the assumptions and practices of a technological society that preclude (or very nearly preclude) the possibility of living in a right relationship with what-is. Trophy hunting is an obvious example of such an immoral, dissonant relationship. But so is the fact that—despite some minor and failed efforts—I don’t know the names of trees or birds or plants or fungi, etc.

The poem ends before the shot is made. This is effective because my imagination has any number of questions about the outcome. Could you speak about what happens on the other side of the poem? I mean not only the ensuing events—did the speaker hit or miss, what was done with the wolf—but also what goes on inside the speaker, mentally and emotionally, after the gun is fired.

My intention was that the poem would point to the assumption that the hunter shot the wolf and the wolf was killed. Also, while the poem makes it obvious that some sort of different insight is gained (or passed through) at the end of the poem, this does not for me have any practical consequences. I mean that I doubt whether the speaker would be lead to change his mind about hunting. In fact I’m less interested in a poem making this moral point. For me the hunter came rather close to the wolf in several senses, the most  interesting being the moment before he kills the animal. Here, as you note in one of your later questions, the hunter is suddenly within death’s proximity, as if death is brushing by his shoulder.

The Malahat has the version of this poem that won the contest and will be published in the Fall issue (#172), and also a revised version, which you submitted upon notification of your win and which is posted, along with the winner, on the magazine’s website. While both versions make use of a volta and share the same second stanza, the first stanza in the revised version is looser and more rambling. For me, it allows deeper access into the speaker’s own psyche, and by proxy, the wolf’s, since the speaker and the wolf are, by circumstance, irrevocably joined. What were your objectives when you revised this piece? What about the winning draft left you unsatisfied?

Actually the shorter version is the more recent. And, until I received word about winning this award, I’d no real sense about which one to go with. I probably would never have left a still different first draft behind had not a friend of mine made a fundamental criticism that kept me rewriting much of this poem for several months. In the end I felt the longer version was just too long. I wanted something short. More than that I was searching for a first part that would be adequate to the conclusion, which has never changed since the first time it was written. The volta is for me a consequence of writing a dramatic lyric: its cool if you can push the speaker over some sort of authentic interior edge and follow the way he falls.

The form you’ve chosen for both versions of this poem reminds me of David McFadden’s Gypsy Guitar sonnets: prosaic, conversational, and yet aiming toward profound revelation. The volta, in McFadden’s poems and in your own, also adds allusion to the Petrarchan sonnet form. This, for me, gave Wolf Hunter an element of romance, or deep love. What do you make of the connections between love and death? And how do these ideas show up in the speaker’s relationship with the landscape?

I guess it’s time to read some McFadden. I’m glad you hear those allusions. I certainly didn’t intend them! I can’t presume to speak about the relationship between love and death, except to note that there’s probably a very real connection between them. Read some Jack Gilbert. There’s a guy who knows something about the relationship between love and death. The hunter here is just a guy with money and gun. I take it that he couldn’t give much of a care for the landscape beyond it providing him a very special playground. But he’s an animal—just like the wolf. There’s that great line from one of Robert Hass’ earlier poems: “Creature and creature, / we stared down centuries”. That might be the shadow side of this poem.

What do you think it is that makes humans so safe inside the boundaries we create around who is predator and who is prey? Do you think that boundary dissolves inside that “room we enter together”? How do you think this poem would be different if the wolf was hunting the speaker?

Something dissolves in that “room we enter together.” That seems to open up a lot of space in the poem, and I’m glad to have found that line. I’m not sure if I can say too much about it.

I suspect that we aren’t that safe. Of course the wolf doesn’t have much of a chance, and the hunters are flying in a plane. And obviously the speaker does seem to feel safe enough—and doesn’t expect otherwise. But this is a very specific instance. A more general, long-term perspective might show things to be different; not only for the hunter, but for all of us. From that perspective, and where we might imagine the wolf doing the hunting, I’d write a poem about building a straw hut and calling it a castle. And there’d be a wolf outside who could blow it down no problem.

Read Darren's Far Horizons Award-winning poem, "Wolf Hunter"; and its earlier version.

Check out the guidelines for the 2011 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction and the 2012 Far Horizons Award for Poetry.