To Write a Good Poem:
Chelsea Rushton catches up with 2010 Far Horizons for Poetry Award-winner Darren Bifford

Darren BiffordThe winner of our 2010 Far Horizons Award for Poetry, Darren Bifford, talks with Malahat volunteer Chelsea Rushton about his post-win life.

Since your poem "Wolf Hunter" won The Malahat Review's 2010 Far Horizons Award for Poetry, you and Cactus Press have published a chapbook with the same name, and you've developed a manuscript, Wedding in Fire Country, to be published in the spring of 2012 by Nightwood Editions. The chapbook and the manuscript both contain this poem, and also a response to it, entitled "Wolf Hunted." Which poem came first? And what is the significance for you in giving the wolf a voice also?

“Wolf Hunter” was written first. Almost as soon as I finished the first draft of that poem, I began to write another poem from the stand-point of the wolf. Not much stood between them—maybe another cup of coffee at the Gladstone. At the time I didn’t intend the counter-point of the imagined voice of the wolf to have any moral significance—though, I guess, that sort of reading is difficult for me to avoid now. My ambition was more technical: I wanted to offer myself only the experiment of writing the same kind of lyrical monologue but from another point of view. It strikes me that to the extent these poems are at all successful, it’s because I didn’t begin writing with any sort of philosophical or ethical intention of what I wanted to write about. I began with a question about poetic composition and proceeded for better or worse from there. The content followed of itself.

These two poems, "Wolf Hunter" and "Wolf Hunted," appear on facing pages in your chapbook. They complement each other in voice as well as in form: "Wolf Hunter" takes on a fuller, fleshier appearance with only one volta, while "Wolf Hunted" is sparser on the page, but rhythmical, written in couplets. Did you impose form on either or both of these pieces? Or did it occur more organically in the writing of them?

The first version of "Wolf Hunter" was also written in couplets. Matt Rader offered some fairly amazing editorial advice on many of the poems in that chapbook. At the end of a long g-chat session, he mentioned that something seemed off with "Wolf Hunter,” something about the voice, etc., and that the end was cool but, you know, not so much the beginning. (He probably said that differently.) This led me to isolate the final nine or ten lines, as if I was reminding myself to keep these lines; so I walled them off into a stanza. I knew where the poem had to end up, but I spent a long time rewriting the preceding lines with the hope that it’d be adequate to the completed finale. Matt and I didn’t get around to talking about "Wolf Hunted,” and had we done so, that poem would also have suffered through some kind of transformation similar to what happened with "Wolf Hunter."

There are other conversations occurring in Wolf Hunter also. The first section of the chapbook, entitled "History" begins with an excerpt from a letter or a quote by Czeslaw Milosz to Jerzy Andrejewski, and it contains only one long poem, called "Letters to Milosz." Is there a particular reason you chose Milosz to correspond with? The speaker here is trying to communicate with someone with an exceptional life, who is no longer alive. What is this relationship, and this poem trying to communicate about History, or the passing of time?

These are questions I keep asking myself about the poems. And I wish I had a good answer for you. After the chapbook appeared, a reviewer characterized those poems as fan letters or fan mail or something along those lines. I was disappointed at the misinterpretation, since the last thing I wanted to do was write “fan poems,” which suggests to me an expression of trite adulation. Anyway, I didn’t begin with a clear idea of what I wanted to write about. I had some very bad first drafts of a sequence I’d started and forgot about years before called “Letters to Milosz.” One day I recalled those poems and decided I’d take another look and see if I could turn them into sonnets, or at least sonnet-like poems. As with "Wolf Hunter,” that technical decision suddenly opened up the poems and let me think dimly about what they seemed to be trying for.

But I knew, also, that I wanted to write something in response to the life and work of Czeslaw Milosz, and that I didn’t want that response to be academic or abstract. I wanted to establish, as it were, a kind of intimacy with Milosz’s work, a personal communication, where I might set portions or fragments of my experience against the experiences to which Milosz bears witness. It’s hard not to read Milosz and wonder how the guy managed to write at all. He came of age in what is now Lithuania during the First World War and lived through the hell fires of Poland during the Second World War. He defected to France in the early fifties, and ended up in California on the hills above the Pacific Ocean, where his past must have seemed very far away indeed. When I wrote the Milosz poems I was reading a selection of his letters which he wrote to a friend throughout the early1940s. Shocking to me were the themes of those letters: they canvassed, urgently, questions about the worth of the Greco-Christian humanistic traditions in the face of the totalitarianisms surrounding them; the worth of morality; whether it was possible to believe in the existence of a human nature or whether what we are is merely what history determines…and so on. I knew that these letters and other poems were written in secret; that Milosz stood in food lines; that his friends were dying; that he was culling books from destroyed libraries; that the future seemed exhausted by either Stalinism or Nazism. All this, and Milosz’s writing at that time seemed an active fight against despair and an insistence in the vitality of the older European traditions.

So I wondered what any of this had to do with me. For a while I’ve been struck by the fact that those of us—descendents of Europeans, I mean—who grew up in Western Canada, especially rural Western Canada, were taught neither the history of the place where we lived nor the history of the peoples we descended from. Of course that’s not entirely true—we did have social studies classes. What I mean is that in a more immediate sense the towns and the mountains, lakes, rivers, and valleys, all were given to us as if out of nowhere. The deep history of that place was mute, its tongue cut out. I grew up in Summerland, a town so ridiculously named originally in order to attract wealthy settlers from Ontario. (And if Summerland didn’t sound bucolic enough, there was always Peachland down the road). These names, like the settlements which followed, cover over the real history of the place. And that history, if it’s told at all, lives in languages other than English. More than that, and more recently, is of course the history of colonialism in Canada—the depths and horror of which I’m just beginning to appreciate.

So these poems are first attempts to think about—to borrow George Grant’s harrowing statement—“who we are and what we did”. They are my own attempts to come to terms with what it means to live here, on this continent, on this land, and in relation to the European traditions from which I can’t escape. I don’t pretend these poems are adequate to any of that. They mark my first attempts. And there are other writers whose work extends far deeper, and from which I continue to learn a great deal— books by Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, Matt Rader, Robert Bringhurst, Wade Davis, Hugh Brody are all currently on my desk.

Further to the last question, how do you feel the first section of your chapbook, "History," dialogues with the second section, called "Nature," where the Wolf poems appear? What kind of relationship do you see between History and Nature, and between humans and both of those concepts, as sections in your book or in the world?

Well, I probably suggest too much by the use of those nouns. Some of what I mean I mention above. But to be honest, most of that thinking is subsequent to the writing of the poems. At the time, when I divided the poems up, all I had in mind was a distinction between two kinds of violence: the violence we inflict on one another (history) and the violence we inflict on non-human life (nature). In Geology of Norway, Jan Zwicky (imagining the voice of Wittgenstein) likens history to the scar human beings have left on the earth. I read that poem quite a bit in my early twenties and it’s not surprising to me something Zwicky wrote lingers in what I take now to be my deeper intuitions. 

All of the poems in Wolf Hunter will also appear in your full-length book Wedding in Fire Country. How do you feel the book will build up or deepen into the themes Wolf Hunter has started to cultivate? Is there anything you would like your readers to take with them from these poems and into their relationships with the people, things, and phenomena around them?

Wolf Hunter was fairly focused, and I perhaps artificially insisted on too much with the strict division of Nature and History. I have no idea what Wedding in Fire Country does or does not do towards building some of what you’ve noted in Wolf Hunter. I also don’t know what a reader might or ought to take away from reading these poems. That question opens up this other issue about what a work of art does to its audience. Or what an audience is supposed to get from an artwork. I guess I doubt the terms of the question. We might take a message away from a sermon or an academic course. But artworks—unless they have some definite intention, like a work of propaganda—strictly fail to do anything. The picture of a poem or a painting, etc., as a causal locus that either causes or fails to cause some effect—for better or worse—is, I think, just wrong. It opens the door to the question we often hear: what use is art? Let’s say it’s neither useful nor useless. Simone Weil wrote somewhere that a work of art simply exists—and that’s enough. We don’t value it because it does something favorable to us. In fact it doesn’t matter whether we value it at all. It’s doubtful to me that our response to beauty entails any specific sort of moral improvement. That said, I’m interested in the way an artwork demands a kind of attention at odds with contemporary entertainment and instruction. And sustained attention in aesthetics probably translates into other areas of practical life. But for me there’s really nothing extra I want a reader to take away from reading my poems. All I want is to write a good poem. And for someone to read it and say, man, good poem.

Chelsea Rushton

Chelsea Rushton

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Check out the guidelines for our 2012 Far Horizons Award for Poetry.