Jan Horner and Maureen Scott Harris In Conversation

Jan Horner: Let’s start by saying how long we’ve been talking about poetry, and how and when we met.

Maureen Scott Harris: I think we met in 1994, at the League’s AGM in Winnipeg — so we’ve been talking for close to twenty years. That was my first AGM. Rhea Tregebov had told me I should meet you, that you were lovely and we had lots in common — both librarians, both poets, both influenced by the poetry coming from the women’s movement. So I was on the lookout for you.

JH: And I had the sense that I had known you before that. When I was an editor at CV2, we accepted and published a couple of your poems in 1986. In your note accompanying the submission, you said you were a librarian at the University of Toronto. I had been a student working at the University’s Robarts Library in 1975–76 and I thought I might know you. As it turned out, we had not met before, but I remember the first encounter at the AGM and how you spoke with such natural warmth and clarity, and one way or another we haven’t stopped talking.

MH: Yes, we hit it off. Conversation with you was easy and fun and interesting. In short order we discovered we both liked to write letters, so the conversation that started at that meeting continued through letters — which we still exchange — mixed with face-to-face whenever we got the chance.

JH: It’s been so wonderful to open your letters. I remember one in particular from a trip you had taken to New York City that was written as if you intended me to bind it as a book, complete with wonderful photographs. I feel like I’ve learned so much from you, and not just about writing, though talk about writing has certainly been an important part of our exchange.

MH: But though we’ve talked and corresponded so much about poems and poetics over the years, we haven’t discussed our individual ways of writing. Can you say something about how you write a book or a poem? Or where a poem begins?

JH: I can talk about the general circumstances that gave rise to my books, but the question about where poems start for me is somewhat different. Recent Mistakes grew out of a time of intense poetry reading which was purely idiosyncratic and focused on twentieth-century writing, specifically by women, but also out of a time of intense letter writing. I think much of the book came from the realization that with poetry, as with letter writing, you are ultimately trying to seduce the reader, to bring the reader into some kind of intimacy. And of course there were a fair number of love poems in that book. Elizabeth Went West is really overshadowed by the death of my mother and a growing sense of mortality. I think I was trying to work out how you “age gracefully,” how you come to terms with loss and limitation. Mama Dada involved a more deliberate choice. I wanted to write out of something other than my own experience, and I chose the Baroness because she seemed such a rich subject, but also someone who has been overlooked, even belittled. And I anticipated a certain enjoyment from doing the research on her life and times.

I don’t think poems start for me from one place or circumstance. They might start with a line or phrase. This was certainly true when I wrote my letter poems; I stole lines from my friends — “the ocean is so warm, like swimming in tea” or “I have the neap and lunar tides fixed to my bicycle.” Once I wrote a poem out of a metrical beat that beguiled me, something heard rather than read. Sometimes a poem has come from an insight that I have considered poetic, although I’ve found those trickier to render adequately. I’m a visual person as well, so my poems have been written in response to photographs, paintings, or films. With the Baroness, I was inspired by the strong language in her writing and posthumous autobiography, by her art — in particular her sculpture of Marcel Duchamp and her collage portrait of Berenice Abbott — and by the extraordinary things people like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams wrote about her.

MH: I’m struck by two things in your response: first that you seem to approach your writing with more focus, or perhaps more definite intent than I do. In my own mind I write randomly, stumbling across things, rather than defining a topic or theme. My second notion concerns your remark that you realized with poetry as well as letters one wants to seduce the reader. It startled me, not for what it said, but because I don’t remember ever thinking about reader or audience in that direct a way. It’s left me asking myself whom I write for or to.

JH: I should say that when I’m in the midst of writing individual poems I don’t know where they will take me, and it’s only later that I see a pattern or trajectory in a group of poems that might yield a direction or theme. With the Elizabeth Russell section in Elizabeth Went West and then with the Baroness in Mama Dada, I had a very clear focus, it’s true, and I think that was a strategy to keep me on track in the midst of a life that kept me from writing as much as I would like. But a couple of sections of Elizabeth Went West were composed of poems brought together afterwards when I saw a possible manuscript emerging. The focus with my first book Recent Mistakes had more to do with an intense involvement with my writing than a plan. Turbulent things were happening in my life at that time, a life I had thought was ordinary and unremarkable. I was reading for my life as much as for my writing, and my writing of poetry was entwined with letter writing. On some level I was aware of planting hooks in my letters to friends in the same way as I was planting them in poems. Being unhappy and excited and in love was part of it. But I don’t think you can sustain that intensity. That sense of writing to a reader, seducing a reader, was really strongest with that first, most personal book.

MH: I don’t want to give the impression that I dismiss the reader or an audience. When I’m revising and rewriting, I ask if the poem offers anything to readers other than myself, and I look for what might need to be clarified for someone who is outside the poem. But while I’m working on a poem I’m not thinking about readers, I’m trying to discover what the poem is about, what it wants to say.

Richard Hugo said that poems have two subjects, the triggering or initiating one that gets it going, and the real one “which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.” I like this doubleness because a poem often begins for me with an image or something I notice that almost flings itself into language. On a good day the language will continue to come, but more often I must work to keep the poem going and in that work I am likely to find it goes in a different direction from the one I had in mind.

I’m interested in the way we are drawn to write about certain ideas or topics or people. In my experience poems often rise from the side, unexpectedly, like things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. It feels like something that wants attention has presented itself to me. The most vivid example I have of this is “The Drowned Boy” sequence of poems in Drowning Lessons. In 1998 I was at the Sage Hill Fall Poetry Colloquium working on a manuscript I thought nearly finished. Tim Lilburn was the colloquium leader; he suggested that, as well as revising existing work, we undertake to write new poems, one every two or three days. One day I was wandering around the grounds of St. Peter’s, dizzy with October sunlight falling on yellow elms and pale gold stubble, when the image of a drowned boy floated into my mind. It unnerved me, and I didn’t want to write about it. But it/he would not go away. Thinking to be done with him I finally wrote “The Drowned Boy,” but that wasn’t the end. He insisted he had a life, and eventually, over the next several years, I ended up with a sequence of thirteen poems.

But to get back to beginnings: like you, I don’t think my poems begin in any single way. They often are responses to events in my life or that impinge on me. I’ve been moved to write by other poems or by works of art, sometimes by an overheard phrase or even a headline. But the main source for me for many years has been nature.

If I look at my books, A Possible Landscape grew out of my attempt to discover whether or not I was a poet — I’d stopped writing for several years, feeling there was nothing in my life to write about. Then I discovered the poetry that was coming out of the women’s movement. I drew on fairy tales and nursery rhymes as well as details of domestic life, wanting to reclaim that material for poetry. Drowning Lessons continued the work of reclamation, expanding it to include and celebrate the prairies where I grew up. It’s also preoccupied with grief and mourning as I tried to confront the losses that occur in a life.

What drew you to write about Elizabeth Russell? Or the Baroness?

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