Spots of Time: John Stintzi in Conversation with J. Mark Smith

J Mark Smith

J. Mark Smith, whose poem "Ready, Blue Sky" appears in the Malahat's Summer 2017 issue, discusses the finer details of his own work as well as Ted Kooser, William Wordsworth, and R. F. Langley with Malahat books reviewer and writer, John Stintzi.


J. Mark Smith likes dragonflies. His most recently published poems can be found in Vallum and Zócalo Square, and his English versions of poems by the Chilean Winétt de Rokha in Shearsman and The Fortnightly Review. His essay "The Richest Boy in the World" appeared in Queen's Quarterly in 2015.  

Many poems in your book Notes For A Rescue Narrative (Oolichan Books, 2007) are written from a point of view that is set at some distance from the subjects. For instance "The River Is Alongside Always and No Longer" literally takes on aerial views, and a poem like "Evergreen" is in third person, but still feels like something a nosy reader such as myself would think you witnessed, or were a part of, because while the point of view in "Evergreen" is removed the details are intimate. I'm curious how you see yourself in relation to your poetry, in a participatory sense?

I hadn't read "Evergreen" in a few years. It's an old enough poem now that it could be by someone else (a sensation I enjoy). Most of the details in it came from my own experience of walking around the Queen and Roncesvalles neighbourhood in Toronto—sometimes with a dog (my first dog, not the one who died recently), sometimes not. Yes, I wanted a distanced effect, or at least a strangeness.

"The River Is Alongside Always and No Longer" is about Fort Simpson, N.W.T., and the people there, who are mostly Dene. If it's partly an aerial view it's because that's how I got up there (in 2001), by plane. Actually, by smaller and smaller planes—and then into Nahanni park and out again by Cessna. The north made the most sense to me, a brief visitor, from the air. The stories of that place that I was fortunate enough to hear illuminated some things too, but what I could see was mostly pretty fragmentary, like what the northern landscape itself would be for us southerners if we had to stay on the ground I suppose.

I really like that sense of fragmentation, as well as the distance. I'm intrigued with how intimate you can make a poem feel while at the same time not having it feel all wound up in the speaker. Which I think I'm impressed by since I've become a more and more personal poet.

For a bit of context—for our readers—we've been talking a little outside of this interview about the recent loss of your dog, which was unfortunate timing for our interview. I sent you Ted Kooser's poem "Death of a Dog," which I stumbled upon lately and we both liked a lot. That said, it's one of those poems you read and imagine the poet might feel guilty about? How well something painful and personal—assuming it's based on a true story—became consumable poetry. For me it's a fear of inciting pathos. Do you ever feel like that, or is it just me? I wonder, from reading you, if you tend to avoid writing from personal pain. By which I mean, I wonder how interested you are in writing from that.

I find Kooser's poem appealing because it gets at something structural (I'll use that word rather than universal) about how the death of someone or something close alters for a time one's experience of the everyday. It's an elaboration on what it is to be unmoored in this way. We learn very little about the particular dog, not much about the house (floors rather than carpets), or the dog's owners – only that it was a fifteen year relationship. The detail of the dog's belly pressed to the floors (plural) moves me. If that's an inciting of pathos, I can't say I disapprove of it. Not at all.

My reference point for making sense of emotion in poetry is William Wordsworth much more than the U.S. confessional poets (who, I guess, opened themselves to the accusation that they were putting themselves on emotional display in a cheap or meretricious way). Anyway, I don't approve or disapprove of confessional poems; it's more that poems of that sort don't hold my interest for long unless there's something special happening in the language and lines.

The thing I am musing about most in your last question is the preposition "from"—"writing from personal pain." I would probably want to say I was writing "towards" or "into the vicinity of" it. Do I avoid writing towards personal pain or family trauma? I don't think I could avoid it even if I consciously set out to avoid it. (Especially if I did.)

What really absorbs me in writing poems is, for lack of a better word, "thrown-ness" (from Macquarrie's mid-twentieth century translation of Heidegger's Being and Time)—i.e., the existential condition of always being "thrown," or projected, into the world, into temporality. I would like to believe that if I can catch that quality of thrown-ness belonging to my own experience with some degree of truthfulness and precision in a poem, then the emotional stratum comes along with it. (In the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student, I read Heidegger and related philosophical texts for several years in a very intense reading group, and a lot of that has stayed with me.)

In any case, it is possible I have had to learn to feel more in the regular range than most people. (Wordsworth was very helpful to me for just this reason.) For quite a long time as a young man I was either numbed, or my emotions were too feral and uninhabitable for ordinary communication. Poetry – reading and writing it – has been life-enhancing for me in that way. There were a couple of poems I wrote when I was beginning, twenty five years ago or so, that I can now see I needed to write, for emotional reasons. They loosened something, let's say. But they were the poems of a beginning poet.

So much to chew on here! I agree with you about the confessional poem needing to be more than just a confession. I've fought with this in my own poetry, and I think the catch for me is often that I simply don't feel I'm as good at eking out these structural (I like this substitute for "universal") sort of "truths" from my life in the same way that better confessional poets can. This said, the too-personal manuscript I just put together would swiftly refute that, because it's quite confessional, but even so I have a hard time thinking that my life is interesting enough as a machine for confessional poetry compared to many of my brilliant, more confessional peers.

I love this idea of "thrown-ness," about being thrust into temporality—I'm particularly intrigued by time, especially the "now," in poetry. I'm curious especially because you talk about taking a more Wordsworthian approach to making sense of emotions in poetry, which talks about—if I'm not assuming the wrong Wordsworthian approach—emotions being recollected in tranquility (aka: when far enough away in time to be seen more clearly)! This makes it sound like you find it easier to make a poem seem stuck in its temporality the further you get away from its origins—from the emotions—which at once seems contradictory and also makes perfect sense? How do you think this distance helps you get a poem fit into this sense of "thrown-ness"?

Well, some would say the formulation you mention is too much with us (still). I guess Wordsworth more or less meant that a poet has got to set up a situation, initially, where s/he can pay attention to what s/he's feeling. That's by no means the same thing as paying attention to compositional challenges, the balancing of sentences, sound patterns, prosodical constraints, etc. Once a poem starts to take shape it may well have its own internal formal necessities that carry the poet composing it a long way from where s/he started. But if you accept the premise that poetry begins in affect, as most poets since the mid-nineteenth century have, you have to admit that the rules of the game do change. (See Alexander Pope's poem for his drowned cat, for instance. It wasn't written by those rules.)

That said, my Wordsworth is the poet of the "spots of time" episodes in The Prelude (in which he anticipates Freud and psychoanalysis and trauma theory too); and of the ecstatic temporality and aesthetic education of the walker in "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"; and of the narrative poems of 1797-1800 like "Michael" and "The Ruined Cottage" (where you've got verbally inarticulate characters whose emotional lives are powerful and complex and enmeshed with a world, and so to plausibly represent their emotion means to articulate the world too). I mean, these are the poems in the tradition that give some philosophical weight to affect – that show why having an emotional life matters. I might never have been persuaded otherwise.

I don't mean to suggest, though, that I know of any programmatic way to intensify or de-intensify the emotional evocativeness of a poem. I don't know why the best poems do to us what they do to us.

Are you familiar with Gertrude Stein's remark that paragraphs are emotional, but sentences are not? She had in mind the sorts of prose things that she was writing (and not verse, which she thought was all about naming), but I think her generalization is applicable to anything we might consider literary. I take her to be saying something to the effect that the "emotion" that inheres in any complex verbal artifact is created by narrative sequence. Affect of this sort clearly has some relation to the non-literary, everyday emotion out of which much writing begins, but the metamorphosis it must go through is mysterious. There is the matter of the sentence, and the balancing of each one, as Stein puts it. Once you're preoccupied by the formal purity of getting sentences right, you're already distanced from whatever you were writing about to begin with. But then arrange sentences in something like a narrative order (even the miniature narratives you typically get in lyric poems), and the thing begins to bleed emotion. How? I presume it's because emotion and the human experience of temporality are indissoluble.

Anyway, the poem of mine—"Ready, Blue Sky"—that's in the upcoming issue of The Malahat Review has a little joke about all of this. The dragonfly I imagine, for a few lines anyway, as having that ecstatic Wordsworthian temporality. The mosquito is more a stock romantic figure, obsessed by death and immediacy, who wants to taste the present moment as it passes, live life to the fullest, etc.

It's been so long since I thought about Wordsworth this much! I like your description of him as working in "spots of time," which makes me wonder if Wordsworth and I have more in common than I previously believed. I've also not heard of the Stein idea, but that makes a lot of sense. I've been sitting here trying to think of lines or sentences that are really emotional and it's hard, especially because the ones that come to mind aren't really emotional on their own, but are sort of traumatized with the emotions of their context. I like how Stein's idea evokes a kind of circuitry, almost, where sentences are wires and terminals necessary for the emotion but are unable to make it on their own.

You beat me to the punch on bringing up your forthcoming poem "Ready, Blue Sky"! All our talk of temporality was definitely a good lead up to this. "Ready, Blue Sky" has a lot of stuff I'm curious about, but firstly I'm wondering how you came to write it. From our interview, I'm guessing you wrote this some time after experiencing a similar landscape as the speaker, but it really does feel—particularly the first section—like your speaker is a conduit transcribing a moment they're actively within, especially because of the amount of sensory detail we get (thistles, fleabane, beaver dam's mud sucking underfoot, damsel flies, etc.). It feels so real-time. What was your process like with this poem?

Dragonflies have sometimes appeared to me with epiphanic force. I mean, in the old non-subjective sense of "epiphany." Like a god showing up. They give me chills. But also the feeling that all is well.

So I had a couple of journal entries about encounters with dragonflies from 2009 (at Yellow Point, Vancouver Island) and 2010 (at Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan). I happened to go back and look at the entries last spring, and I wanted to do something with those sentences, but I felt they weren't enough in themselves to be worked into poems.

Then I thought maybe I'd do a sequence, with several place-linked descriptions of particular dragonflies. With that provisionally in mind, I wrote some of the section you mention last summer. I'd just visited a friend who lives in the country east of Edmonton.

Last year I spent a lot of time with R. F. Langley's Collected Poems, which was published in 2015. Langley's work is sort of a cross between G. M. Hopkins's notebooks and Jeremy Prynne's language poetry. Langley didn't write a whole lot (he died in 2011), but he has some very great poems. There's one called "Depending on the Weather" that's sort of —sort of—a duet or pas de deux between a wasp and a beetle. At a certain point last summer, I thought, I'll try that with a dragonfly and a mosquito! I imitated the form of Langley's poem too, which is a nine syllable line, and has four sections. (I'm not kidding when I say my poem is an homage to Langley.)

But tonally it's different. Langley's poem is more controlled in what it keeps out. Once I had the structure I was working with, I allowed some of my own emotional and intellectual preoccupations to seep in. I wrote "Ready, Blue Sky" during an extremely tough stretch in my marriage. A young woman I knew died in a terrible car accident a little later in the summer; I couldn't help but associate her loss with the landscape of the first section, because of her family's connection to my friend. And then my own two kids appear in various ways in the poem too. That kind of thing.

It's crazy how a thing you saw, or thought about, around seven or eight years ago can eventually make its way into a poem. I expect many writers can empathize about that, carrying around material that you'd like to do something with, but not knowing how to, for what feels like forever. Some meaning just floating around the mind-ether, waiting to bump into its form. I definitely have had that click while reading something, someone strange especially, where suddenly I get a sort of flash of the shape of something I've wanted to do for so long. It's such a relief when that happens! It creates so much energy for writing, that moment. Like splitting an atom.

I'll admit it: I didn't know R.F. Langley's work before being sent your poem, and having read a few of his poems online since, I really felt his influence when I returned to your poem. Particularly in the similar use of those sort of fragmentary sentences, sentences at times perplexing but so evocative and surprising. I'm impressed by how much of the form you took on from Langley's poem to constrain yours.

In terms of "thrown-ness," I really like how time moves in "Ready, Blue Sky," particularly in how the poem uses the dragonflyits ability to fly in all directionsas a representation of this movement in time, "Futurity, / passé composé, and lateral jaunts / out into the recently present." The poem makes me wonder how the experience of life and time might be different for beings that move through the world differently from us. The poem really got me wondering what exactly it'd be like to be a dragonfly, how living might be different if we also had no blindspots? It seems maybe the speaker is afraid of what that would be like in the last section, which begins "I flee a creature that has no blindspots." To see that much, to be so nimble. I get the sense the speaker, by the end of the poem, respects the dragonfly but doesn't really want to be like it. Am I far off?

The folk understanding of dragonflies is that they're pretty, sympathetic, benign – one of the 'good' bugs. (I think of all the garden ornaments and little wall hangings and metal-work and such with dragonfly patterns.) There's a truth in this – an ecological one.

My assumption, though, is that the dragonfly is completely other. (Quite different from dogs.) I'm not sure what we have in common with them. They are so much more ancient than us. Humans and dragonflies are, of course, both creatures of the earth. Our bodies are constituted by the same sorts of complex organic molecules. We have both evolved from simpler biological forms over immense stretches of time. I presume that we share the basic experience of hunger. But maybe little more than that.

Yes, dragonflies are strange, but humankind is the most strange of all (as Sophocles put it).

I was just boating out on a river back home in northwestern Ontario, one of many rivers off of Lake of the Woods, and dragonflies were scooting along the water with us. Little blue ones, the kind so quick and small it can take a bit to realize they're out there with you. I obviously thought of your poem, the details of it. It's funny how a poem or a piece of art can make the material of reality buzz a little, like that. It can make you take note of things you wouldn't necessarily stop and take notice of before. I'm curious: what function do you see your poetry having (besides hopefully encapsulating this sort of "thrown-ness"), if any? What I maybe am asking is, do you go into writing a poem (or maybe some poems?) with sense of duty, social or otherwise? I hope this doesn't sound like a leading question!

The dragonflies you saw sound like bluets of some sort. It must have been a pleasant outing.

To be frank I think of duty or responsibility more in connection with my life as a parent, and as an academic/teacher. Almost certainly I can and do have more of an immediate effect upon the world for good or ill in those roles.

If I were to reach for a precept—it might be "do no harm." I would say the situations tempting a poet (or any writer) to do harm these days present themselves mostly in the context of angry and polarized social media exchanges. Which is to say that a poet is hardly different from any other non-celebrity.

Do I think it's the poet's job to advocate for social change, raising consciousness, etc.? Possibly. This would depend on who you are, and where you come from, so to speak. But propaganda and poetry have never been and never will be the same thing.

A poet's, an artist's, duty is to work out, in his or her own unique way, his or her own relation to historicality—i.e. to dimensions or currents or manifestations of the past that one has not lived through personally, but that must be inherited in some way. (This formulation owes a lot to the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler's reading of the legacy of Friedrich Hölderlin. Amazing teacher, Stiegler. You can see him in a quite wonderful documentary film from 2004 called The Ister.)

The title of my next collection of poems is going to be The Direct Line of Attack. It's a mountaineering expression. I'm not much of a believer in direct lines of attack (the phrase could stand as a periphrasis for words that carry a lot of prestige, like "policy" and "technology"). Why not? Well, because over time we all have deep trouble sorting out what is direct and what is indirect, what we are or were trying to achieve, what we mean or meant to represent about what we are or were trying to achieve, and so on.  It's a difficulty that never goes away. And as for attacking, well. Sometimes—usually—the meandering approach turns out to be the most direct one.

Without being very self-aware about it, for a long time I have gravitated towards a non-monolingual approach to writing. (An "archipelagic poetics," in the Martinican literary theorist Édouard Glissant's term.) I'm not functionally bilingual—French is the other language I'm closest to fluent in—but I've explored a number of languages. I've translated some poems by the Chilean poet Winétt de Rokha.  Some of the poets/writers in this country that I admire most—Erín Moure, Robert Bringhurst, Maria Campbell, Jaspreet Singh—produce polyglot works, texts that arise in a space between languages, and so challenge and complicate monolingualism. I want to do this too. (It's more an aspiration or a projected identification than a sense of duty, clearly.)

A last thing I want to say. That poem you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, "The River Flows Alongside Always and No Longer"—I doubt that it would seem right to me to write it now. Its intent was generous and true enough, I think, but I'm aware also that it has somehow become inadequate. For instance, the little town of Fort Simpson, N.W.T. has had a spate of four suicides since the beginning of 2017. This shocks and saddens me a great deal. I only learned the term "intergenerational trauma" a short while ago. I've been thinking about it seriously, and about reconciliation with Indigenous people, the last couple of years. Will such matters find their way into my poetry? Possibly—indirectly—but more than that, my responsibility here seems to be more to keep my ears to the ground, and to pay attention to what's going on all around.

So much to say about this—so much said!—that I almost feel like I shouldn't say a thing at all or else I'll just keep going.

This interview has been everywhere—grief, philosophy, insects, etc.—but I've got to ask one more question, and I want it to be a simpler one, despite the fact that there aren't very many simple questions about poetry (especially when we've waded this deep). How about this: can you share with us—as a sort of bon voyage—a piece of language that has stuck in your brain lately? Be that from something you've read, written, heard, or otherwise encountered.

Sure. A line and a half from Act II, scene ii of Cymbeline. (I recently watched a video of the 1982 tv version of that strange and marvelous play with the young Helen Mirren as Imogen.) This sentence is spoken by the thwarted seducer Iachimo after he has tricked his way into Imogen's bed-chamber and finds her asleep:

The crickets sing, and man's o'er-laboured sense
Repairs itself by rest.

I live in a household with two young children whose racing senses work their brains into overload every day. The world around us seems over-stimulated too, and mostly by the wrong sorts of sensory input. Anyway, I figure we could all use some of this: not the sleep of oblivion, but the sleep of repair.

John Stintzi

John Stintzi

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