A short interview with Stephen Brockwell

Stephen Brockwell in the Washington Airport : photo credit: rob mclennan
Stephen Brockwell in the Washington Airport : photo credit: rob mclennan

Stephen Brockwell is an Ottawa poet who runs a small IT company from a tiny office in the Chateau Laurier. His collection Fruitfly Geographic won the Archibald Lampman Award in 2004. His most recent publications include Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books (Mansfield Press, 2013), and the chapbook Images from Declassified Nuclear Test Films (above/ground press, 2014).

Q: I’ve been interested in how your literary activity has become more politically engaged over the past few years, from your fifth poetry collection, Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books, including poems such as “from The Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children” and “from Cantos of the 1%,” to the anthology you co-edited with Stuart Ross, Rogue Stimulus: the Stephen Harper Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament (Mansfield, 2010). What is it that has triggered this shift, or do you even see it as a shift at all?

A: Elizabeth Barrett Browning has a brilliant passage in Aurora Leigh. The eponymous aspiring poet is thinking of being in a landscape among monuments and ruins you can’t see under the grass when you’re on top of them. If you walk miles off and look back, though, you can see the shape of the monuments from a distance. We are witnessing such a moment from the grass of local political change. Political and economic power is being pulled into an increasingly rarefied plutocracy that has no nationality and no limits to its desire. I’m no longer afraid to be unfashionably earnest. I can’t sit by silently. Harper and his cronies are despots. They must be opposed forcefully with every little voice—and there is no smaller voice that the one that carries a poem. But it’s called for.

At the same time, I hope I have a self-exposing, roll-the-eyeballs distrust of my own indignation. I hope I do. Slavoj Zizek would say I am a liberal communist that is at the core of our very problem and I’m sure he’s correct. I’m not altogether off grid. I like wine. Wine means globalization and international trade. Boom! Hypocrite.

But I have to say, the language landscape of that discourse is a blast. To be earnest but self-aware, to use and abuse every contemporary neologism, the ad, journalese, hype. I’m having fun.

Q: How does that directly apply to your writing? It is one thing to have an awareness of the world, but quite another to deliberately engage with such in the space of writing. In your work, the overt engagement with the political has been a far more recent element. Are you simply more aware of it now, through what you see happening via Stephen Harper’s Conservatives?

A: If I didn’t find interesting language acts in politics, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I find the appalling abuse of language by the political elite troubling—and distressingly purposeful. In the introduction to Rogue Stimulus, I described how each snippet of bafflespeak from Stephen Harper’s army of sycophantic message-makers is really a Machiavellian Borg haiku. It’s meant to worm its way into your brain and fester there, causing doubt and irritation or, if you’re a partisan, unwavering, fervent belief. Poetry has always been made up of those kinds of language games. I’m thinking of Aristophanes’ send up of Aeschylus’ rhetorical and formal language in The Frogs. Rhetoric in poetry seems out of fashion. Even the plainspoken, folksy appeal of good old Jean Chretien could be unpacked to find little gems of inspiration and deception. You can’t easily erase rhetoric from poetry: you can try to work with and against it.

I’ve been listening for these nuances in my own work. It’s not easy. I’m searching for a landscape of voices that are a blend of earnest, deceptive, evasive, haughty, indignant voices and playing with transparency and self-awareness (or trying to). I’m looking for a kind of unobtrusive transparency that’s barely visible and certainly not self-conscious or showy. You can think of it as trying to make a lively, delicious, stimulating blend of coffee from the mix of toasted speech-beans.

Q: You’ve long returned to the Ancient Greeks for inspiration and rejuvenation. What is it about the writing of the Ancient Greeks that holds your attention? How do you feel their works remain relevant, especially for your own poetry?

A: Yeah, why would that be? I’m not sure I remember. I wasn’t particularly obsessed with them when I was studying.

I do remember. My friend Danny Wall is to blame. He and I were working at Statistics Canada in the late eighties—I hope I can tell a story like this here—developing a mapping system to automatically create enumeration area boundaries based on previous census dwelling counts. We were up all night half the time trying to work out tiny details. Anyway, we went out to Hull one night after work and stopped at Chez Henri. Danny started to regale me and other bar patrons with the tale of the rage of Achilles. If it weren’t for Danny’s super storytelling, I’m sure we would have been subject to violence of the non-epic variety. And then Robert Fagles’ translations started to appear in the journal Grand Street. There is so much kinetic energy in those lines. I was hooked.

Plato’s Ion, Aristotle’s Poetics, the pre-Socratics via Robert Bringhurst. It developed into a minor obsession. For the ancients, technical mastery was paramount: in line, sound, figure. There’s a short ode by Pindar about a young boxer who has won a match; Pindar implores the Graces go down to Hades to share the news of the victory with his father.

I looked it up. It’s “Olympia 14”:

Go now, Echo, to the black wall
of the house of Persephone, bring to his father the clear message;
stand in the presence of Kleodamos and say that his son
in the renowned valley of Pisa
has put on his young hair the wings of glory for games won.

I have little Latin and less Greek, but if the Lattimore’s translation does the poem any justice, I find the movement, the use of the line and voice as beautiful as anything I’ve read.

The toolbox of the ancients had a lot of widgets we’ve forgotten how to use. But they’re handy in a pinch when hammering out a poem. And we use them in common speech without thinking.

Q: I suspect your engagement runs a bit deeper than that, utilizing their toolbox “in a pinch when hammering out a poem.” You’ve spoken at length, for example, of the Pindaric Ode, and I remember how excited you were when we visited William Butler Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee a decade ago, and Westminster Abbey a few years later, when we came upon the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer. What is it about the classic poets, and the classic forms, that resonates so deeply?

A: Can there be any deeper engagement for a poet than to admire another poet’s toolbox? Poetry isn’t about what but how; for me, anyway. Pindar’s ecstatic. “Best of all things is water.” Duh. You bet. But the lines! The movement. In the words of our beloved, departed John Lavery, “very good butter.”

Of course, for me, Pindar has come via Lattimore and Hölderlin in translation. I’ve pronounced the ancient Greek to get the sound in my ear, and all of us can parse a handful of words if we’re attentive, but it arrives primarily via translation. So my love of Pindar is really the love of an ecstasy I can’t possibly understand, one that’s cultivated by the nature of utterance and an affinity with that expressiveness.

I wrote a poem about this recently: you’re conditioned by your earliest memories: what you hear and how you hear it, how it’s spoken and how you say it for the first time, what you see, smell and so on. As a poet I was raised by my mother (accidentally), Van Toorn, Solway and Farkas, so my antecedents are a messed up blend of the old and the new, the long dead and the recently deceased. I doubt anyone who reads Yeats in their youth would be able to fully shake him.

Now Chaucer is another matter entirely. Chaucer is a comic genius, the ancestor of all English comedy from Shakescene to Benny Hill. And the comedy lives in the lines. Never has the couplet been put to better use. To be beside Chaucer’s tomb and not want to crawl in would seem the less sane state of mind. But he’s also a genius of reflection: the most under-read tale is the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale, the funniest, most precise tale of alchemy—and its self-aware deceptions—you’ll ever read. Clearly Chaucer was that aware of the gobbledygook behind alchemy, and could express with humour and empathy how a poor schmuck could be embroiled in such schemes. It’s marvelous! I’m not sure I can think of a writer who could equally deconstruct a Ponzi scheme.

Q: I’ve long been aware of Peter Van Toorn’s influence on your writing, but am less aware of what you might have picked up from David Solway and Endré Farkas. You say you were, “as a poet,” raised by these three very different Montreal writers. What do you feel, specifically, you might have learned from each of them and their work?

A: I picked up the lesson of Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse,” Richard Wilbur’s “Ceremony.” Solway was a superb reader and teacher—if you had the patience and discipline to listen and learn from him. He was relentlessly formal of course, but I respect that taste. From Endré, I learned to be a better human, I think. He was unreservedly generous with his time and his wisdom. He was a superb counterpoint to David. He introduced me to Claudia Lapp, the Four Horsemen—all the wild stuff. To hear me reading at that time must have been perplexing, incongruous and uncomfortable. I was as likely to shriek a nonsense poem as I was to try to recite a sonnet with conviction.

Q: What have you been working on since you finished the poems that make up Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books? The poems in the chapbook Images from Declassified Nuclear Test Films explore the intersection where declassified government secrets impact with the broader culture. How do they fit in with the other poems you’ve been working on lately?

A: OK. Difficult question. I’m often not sure what I’m up to until I’ve finished the job of listening. A few threads seem to be emerging: the first continues the theme of language and politics, but the work seems to take a different approach, one that more explicitly looks at speech and how it’s subverted by journalese, catch-phrases and so on, like the infuriating phrases “boots on the ground” and “in terms of such-and-such.”

I’ve been undertaking a few more experiments by running up field with a random gift, seeing what kind of play can be made from a given opening: something overheard, a word out of context, a mistranslation. For example, I just started a poem, “Avila Billy Rubin,” that was spurred by my dumb-phone’s misprision of my attempt to spell availability. My phone gave me Avila bilirubin: a place in Spain and a blood constituent that sounds much like the name of a reasonably normal person. I’ve been listening more and thinking less, which is a good thing.

Interesting that you should mention the Declassified Nuclear Test Films. Those aren’t didactic political exercises. Really, they’re attempts to take note of the smallest details, the most ephemeral moments in those films that transcend propaganda and authority. The films aren’t particularly clear, so it’s easy to infer imaginative things. A bird flies into frame, for example—from where? In some of the films about atmospheric testing, the nuclear fire ball is indistinguishable from the noon Sun. So I capture the Sun. I think the refusal to see those films for what they were meant to be by deliberately re-writing the script, if you will, by decomposing it to the frame, may somehow de-authorize the intended narrative.