An Interview with John Steffler

Sharon Caseburg: You noted in a 2010 interview with Open Book: Toronto that “wilderness or the uncontrollable and the unexpected are central subjects” in your collection Lookout. What is it about the uncontrollable that is desirable to write about? What do we learn about ourselves in exploring these wilder sides in literature?

John Steffler: I think that a thing that defines the human is our species’ decision to redesign our relationship with nature. All living things strive to survive and avoid pain and death, but most creatures are more accepting of their own capacities and their environment’s given conditions. Humans long ago set out, through the use of various technologies, to alter their relationship to nature. We wanted more than was given. Language was probably our first technology. In it we made our first virtual reality. We invented ourselves and told ourselves that the world is a store of resources for us to exploit in our quest to become gods. But of course there’s a huge discrepancy between what we want for ourselves and what we actually get. We’re still mortal, we age, we get sick, things break, we go crazy, we can’t trust each other, we have nightmares, resources get used up or go poisonous. The great story is how we deal with or get along with what we can’t controlwith the fundamental conditions of reality. Two poles have always been wisdom and tyranny. Wisdom tells us that though we have minds that desire to be divine, we’re still creatures like everything else in nature, and we have to accept the forces and rhythms that sustain us. The tyrant in us just wants to seize control through brute physical force, pry out the “secrets of nature,” make ourselves and the world a giant self-repairing machine. This is insane. So, I guess that’s what we learn. We have to accept our limitations and setbacks, live on more equal terms with the rest of the nonhuman world. This is the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

SC: How wonderful to think of language as our first technology, and poetry as the means through which that technology runs. When you write, do you consciously set out to “experiment” with language and form, or is your approach to writing more organic?

JS: I have, for short periods, experimented with form or made “play” with language the starting point for writing, but I’ve always quickly returned to what you probably refer to as an “organic” approach to writing. I guess I’ve always leaned toward a kind of ventriloquism in which I try to reinvest language in real things and break down the distance between words and what they denote. I know this is impossible. I’m forever plastered against the plate glass window separating me from the world, but it seems to me that poetry is all about trying to use language to break through that glass wall that language itself, paradoxically, has been instrumental in creating. I guess in writing I’ve always tried to merge three elements: language, myself and a subject or thing I experience. I’ve tried to use myself as an intermediary to give language to the thing or subject, or make myself a body of language and respond as language to the subject or experience in question. I think of this as how a musician might use his/her instrument to express an idea or conjure a place or character or story. So I want the poem’s form to be a kind of marriage of language and subject.

SC: In that same Open Book: Toronto interview mentioned earlier, you noted that you “don’t see landscape as a backdrop to our culture but as a living entity to which we are connected, a kind of ‘character,’ a kind of primitive deity with which we have a complex, deep relationship.” Can you tell us about your own relationship with landscape and how its influence has had a hand in your writing process?

JS: I was conditioned by my early years. I grew up in a rural area and spent a lot of time alone out of doors. While I appreciate and benefit from what cities offer, I can’t live long-term in a big city. This isn’t a matter of ideology, it’s a matter of feeling or instinct. I’m rarely completely at ease in a city. I find city parks literally depressing, even though I think cities should have more green spaces. Knowing the green space is just a “space” makes me claustrophobic. I feel much better in small cities where I can see out over the outskirts into wide-open space, the sea or mountains or forest beyond the buildings and roads. That’s more the relationship that suits me: a city space surrounded by green rather than the other way around.

I can’t really explain or analyze what I get from landscape. It has to do with a sense of being alive and at home. I like being close to weather and the movement of the day’s and night’s time. In the city there’s so much artificial light, it’s hard to be viscerally aware of the movement of natural time. I guess I could say that I believe my mind is largely outside myself. My mind is composed of what I perceive and have perceived and the broad environment in which I live. My ego or sense of myself is a layer of consciousness superimposed on this wider and deeper mind which is identical with “the world.” I think this experience of mind is probably similar for a lot of people. I think that when people meditate, one of the things they’re doing is letting go of the ego consciousness and simply letting the world fill their mind or be their mind. From my earliest years I enjoyed wandering around outdoors not thinking about anything, just being aware of what was happening in the landscape.

Writing poetry, for me, has sometimes been a matter of trying to make the rhythms and syntax and style of language echo or engage in a kind of dialogue with the processes and “voice” in a particular landscape.

SC: Do you find that you are able to engage with naturalist elements in your work while in a particular landscape, or do you find being removed from it better allows you to work those elements in your piece or project?

JS: I enjoy visiting different kinds of landscape. Different parts of the earth present us with different characters of landscape, different earth histories, different environmental languages, different styles of life, different atmospheres. Landscapes have spirits and voices. As a writer, I have often felt an immediate impulse to try to express the character of the landscape in which I find myself. I lived for many years in Newfoundland. I found its landscapes and seascapes extremely powerful and challenging. They’re profoundly beautiful and uncontrollableamong the most uncontrollable of any of the colonized landscapes in Canada. Everything you encounter is a rebuttal of what you think you know, a lesson in compromise, endurance and wily resourcefulness. I must admit that I did some of my writing about Newfoundland outside of Newfoundland. I wrote a rough draft of The Grey Islands on the Grey Islands; then I finished the book over the course of a year on the island of Naxos in Greece.

SC: What was that process like, revising in such a different environment from that which you were writing about? How did one influence the other?

JS: Well, I wasn’t just revising. I was inventing. And I think the environment played an important part in what and how I wrote. On one level I was in a kind of cultural isolation. This was before the internet, and there were no English language newspapers where we were and no English radio apart from BBC shortwave, and we didn’t have a shortwave radio. I welcomed being cut off. We didn’t know about the Falklands war until it was over. The result was that my writing project took on exceptional clarity and concreteness. There was little cultural interference to cloud it. In a sense I was living in a kind of pre-modern worldmuch more so than the Greeks themselves, who were all connected to their own culture and world events via the current media. I was living in a primarily sensory and immediately physical worldwhich I loved. This fitted well with how I wanted to evoke or depict the world of the Grey Islands I was writing about.

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

John Steffler is the author of six books of poetry, including The Grey Islands, That Night We Were Ravenous, Helix: New and Selected Poems and Lookout. His novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright won the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth First Novel Award. His poetry awards include the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Newfoundland and Labrador Poetry Prize. Lookout was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Prize. He has served as writer-in-residence at Concordia University, Saint Mary’s University and the University of New Brunswick. From 2006 to 2009 he was Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada.