An Interview with Charlene Diehl

Clarise Foster: Does working in the medium of music change your expectations of what or how you write a poem?

Charlene Diehl: I suspect I’m like a lot of other writers in that I’m often impatient with my own voice. One of the qualities that has irritated me is a certain tidiness (I can hear my friends laughing) which really interferes with the emotional charge I’m interested in getting at. To me, a poem should be more like a slow-motion explosion than a survey of the aftermath. I’m happy enough to read writing that has that quality of stillness, but I tend to be a very kinetic person—writing that stands still doesn’t express me.

Musicians play. I think all artists need that same permission. To write in a way that feels musical has been a conscious strategy to generate a kind of internal movement in a poem, a hum, deep resonance. Perception is active, not passive—that’s a big part of the pleasure.

A lot of this connects with an enduring question for me about the voice—another of those terms which is both literary and musical. Most of us could actually identify passages by our favourite writers in a blind test because their voices are so familiar to us. One’s writing voice carries many markers of real voices: the actual sequences of consonants and vowels, but also rhythm and cadence. A performer adds timbre to that list, and speed and a million small-scale decisions about how a specific voice might render the potential voice. Performance—which includes even our silent reading—is an elaborate act of voicing, an acknowledgement that writing is finally an expression, a pressing out of sound.

Unlike musicians, writers don’t have an apprenticeship on stage. That seems to me not only a pity, but also a devastating blind spot. If we set out collectively to expand and finesse the expressive options available to us as performers of our work, we’d find more ways to tune into the expressive options in language and linguistic structures. We’d also be better readers, we’d express ourselves better, we’d compel our listeners to understand the power of the voice and to begin to exercise their own.

CF: Your public performances frequently incorporate musicians. How does this collaboration work, and how does it differ from the solitary art of placing words to the page on your own?

CD: Nearly three years ago now, I had a chance to collaborate with jazz bassist Steve Kirby and that exchange has really kick-started this present phase of my writing, and periodic work with him and other jazz musicians. Genuine collaboration differs from—and challenges—the solitary work of writing. Musicians have their own things to say, and when you work collaboratively you can’t be in charge of all the valences that are being opened up in that moment.

Performing has also accompanied me back to the solitary work on screen. I’m more sure that writing is only half the event, even if the piece will end up being read only by me, or by a solitary reader. Writing is becoming more like scoring for me, like mnemonics for performance. I do aim for precision on the page, but I know that the moment of reading will have many investments that are outside my control.

CF: What are the issues that differentiate—and at times exasperate—poets who see performance as their primary artistic medium? Why does there seem to be such an insurmountable rift between those poets who focus on performance and those who work with the more traditional medium of the written word?

CD: It has always seemed to me that powerful poetry—no matter what era or language or tradition—has a deeply compelling aural dimension. Shakespeare, Blake, cummings, Neruda, Chaucer, Atwood, Ondaatje, bp Nichol: these writers engage me intellectually and spiritually through an art form that traffics in sound. I’ve always liked the critic Charles Hartman’s observation that poetry is an act of attention. To me, part of that attention is to the medium itself. The far ends of the poetry spectrum—sound poetry and concrete poetry—separate the two basic functions of written language, but those are book-ends that only finally underscore the fact that poetry plays to both the eye and the ear. If indeed there is a rift between people who perform and people who don’t, I suspect it comes more out of an incomplete awareness of the depth of the tradition of both ear and eye.

Poets, especially now when the art form doesn’t have a wide practice, are often poorly schooled in the form, which makes their experiments less pertinent and demanding than they could be, and their arguments less grounded.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.