Ken Norris: As a young writer you were very interested in concrete and sound poetry. Why the interest, and what did you learn from your explorations?
Stephen Morrissey: What I learned was how to write poetry that communicates what I want to say to the reader. But that wasn't my intention when I began writing so-called experimental poetry. I thought experimental poetry was the destination and not just the path to something else; it was really my apprenticeship as a poet. If you had asked me why I write experimental poetry back in 1969 or the early '70s I would have come up with all sorts of theories. Obviously, I've evolved over the intervening years. The approach to poetry by experimental poets is still with me; that is, I am always taking risks in my work, I never censor what I write although I do substantial revising, and I am always changing in my work. But as far as the experimental theories, of so-called "language" poetry, or what have you, I'm really not interested in an intellectual approach to poetry.
In the 1970s you were part of the Vehicule poets movement in Montreal. In your view, what was that all about?
That was all about setting up readings at Vehicule Art Gallery every Sunday afternoon for five or six years, meeting poets, being part of a loosely held together group, getting involved with poets, being committed to poetry and writing as a way of life. That's what it was for me, a place where I was accepted as a young poet who did experimental poetry and I would certainly not have been accepted by the other English-speaking poets in Montreal that had their roots in the early '60s scene, or what was left of it. In the past I have perhaps underestimated our work at Vehicule Art. This came home to me when I visited "Vehicule Art Inc: research in progress", an exhibition at Concordia University. We poets took over the gallery every Sunday afternoon, usually got a pretty good audience for whoever was reading, staged large group readings, brought in some "big names" in poetry, and were an important part of the life of the gallery. Our reading series at Vehicule Art was the most important poetry series in English-speaking Montreal at the time. Another important thing about Vehicule was that we all worked in different areas of poetry but there was respect for each other's work. And I think we were influenced by the visual art that was shown at the gallery. It was a really creative time for us. Frankly, I miss the group spirit very much; I remember those years at Vehicule Art with fondness and nostalgia.
A few of the Vehicule poets were editors at Vehicule Press for about six years, during which time your book The Trees Of Unknowing (1978) was published by Vehicule. Do you think that book in any way reflects the group aesthetic?
Was there a group aesthetic? I don't see how my first book reflected the group aesthetic. The Trees Of Unknowing was the outcome of a gradual transition from contemporary ideas of experimental writing to a more traditional form of poetry. If there was any sort of influence between poets at Vehicule it was more in line of encouragement and acceptance of what you wanted to do in your work. We weren't Black Mountain poets, Tish poets, Beatniks, or what have you. For instance, Henry Miller was an enormous influence on me; the work of J. Krishnamurti is important to me. Various visual artists also influenced my work, plus Chinese T'ang Dynasty poetry, photography, music, and so on. But I doubt these were influences on anyone else's work but my own. For the most part, I haven't been too involved in the politics of poetry. We all know that a grant or a prize gives a certain amount of recognition, and this helps one to continue writing, but it has little to do with excellence in poetry. So, perhaps the Vehicule poets have been underestimated and there are political reasons for this, for instance, the rest of the country prefers to think of Quebec as being only French-speaking. But so much of the history of poetry in Canada begins right here, in Quebec and Montreal in particular. Montreal remains the most cosmopolitan and cultural city in Canada. Culture, here, is a way of life, not an affectation or an oddity as it sometimes seems to be in other parts of the country.
I have always found your work very strongly visual. Why do you think the visual is such a primary component in your poetry?
When I went to university I considered going into Fine Arts, instead I did something "practical" and went into Political Science and then, finally, I studied English literature. When I was in high school I read Van Gogh's letters, and my cultural heroes were Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and the other French Impressionists and Expressionists. My approach to writing poetry is fairly simple, I believe that the reader should be able to visualize what the poet writes as well as be moved emotionally by the poem. There also has to be a rhythm to the language; music is also very important to me. Despite my work reviewing poetry I really don't care if a poem is not a hundred percent well written. It has to move me emotionally. Well written poems that are merely intellectual, academic, or highly crafted hold little interest for me. I have always taken photographs; since I was eleven or twelve years old I've had a camera. I used to pour over old family photographs; this was part of my obsession with the past. I enjoy very much looking at books of photographs. In one of the poems in The Trees Of Unknowing I mention Dostoyevsky's desk and this refers to a photograph of the writer's desk; just yesterday I came across a photograph of C.G. Jung's desk. So much of the inner self is revealed in his desk, just as Van Gogh revealed his inner self and the inner self of Gauguin in his two paintings of the chairs they used when they were together for a few months in Arles in the late 1880s. I am deeply moved by visual art, paintings, photographs, scultpures, water colours, drawings, and so on. I used to visit a friend in England every few years and I'd always visit the Tate Gallery to see the Rothkos, the marvelous paintings by William Turner, and the drawings by William Blake. When I visit Ottawa it's the National Gallery of Canada for the Group of Seven and the room of Henry Moore sculptures at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. So all of this is an important part of my work; writing and visual art don't exist in isolation from each other, they are part of the same creative process.
A lot of Canadian poetry is fairly emotionally restrained. In contrast, you don't seem to hold very much back in your poetry. Your work is highly personal and confessional. Can you explain this?
The answer to this lies in why I write poetry. I ask myself what is my main concern and since poetry is so important to me then obviously whatever I am urgently concerned with will find its place in my poetry. I remember reading, in the late 1960s, something Allen Ginsberg said, "Scribble down your nakedness because it is the nakedness of the soul that people are really interested in reading about." I've had a lot to work out, to try to understand, in order to feel clear about myself and my life. Also, I had dreams when I was twelve years old that pretty much pushed me into writing about the things that I write about. These dreams were very direct statements to write about certain things that required greater clarity. Our society denies the importance of self-knowledge, denies our emotions, and so on; in comparison to the official attitude of our society, my work must seem unrestrained, although I don't think it is.
I don't like the term "confessional" poetry because it is not accurate; it doesn't properly describe the work of poets who have a need to take risks and live on an emotional and existential edge. We all have a dark side, what C.G. Jung termed the Shadow. Often my work explores inner darkness; this includes emotional pain, and obsession with the past and with death. In some ways I have crossed the line between the private and public person, because my work is basically all private. After I wrote the poem "Divisions", my writing changed, the barrier between the public and private person disappeared. This doesn't mean divulging every private detail of one's life: however, I have written about the essential parts that other people might find helpful in their lives, or the parts that fall into some kind of mythopoetic shaping of experience that is both personal and beyond personal. Basically all of my poetry is very moral and life affirming despite the solemnity of it, or a sometimes apparent bleakness. What I write about from my own life doesn't feel like it is just my personal property but belongs to whoever reads it, as long as I can fashion it, through art, into something that transcends the personal. Then the poetry has gone beyond the divisive and time imprisoned ego. I believe that poetry should take emotional risks; that it should not be afraid to go beyond emotional repression and fear—then it can have a psychically positive effect on the writer and the reader. It can help to wake us up; can help us to examine our lives.
Many poets reach a level of writing proficiency, where their writing is very good. In Canada we have that type of poet, people who write well, but they lack vision. I have reviewed almost a hundred poetry books over the last fifteen years and only a few show any evidence of the poet grappling with the essential things of life: how to live a decent life, how to be emotionally free, and the role of the spiritual in poetry. To write something and show technical skill in writing or originality in one's use of language, that's all very nice but if the poet isn't saying anything then it is all for nothing.
The real poet is capable of transcending our stereotyped ideas of what is important and to be valued in life. Poetry is the vehicle for this vision. This vision has to do with what C.G. Jung calls "individuation" and what others call self-knowledge and self-discovery, this must be one of the important purposes of life. But there is no formula to create this kind of great poet. This kind of writing—writing with vision—has to do with spirituality, with meaning, and with love.
Divisions is dedicated to your father and your son, and it's always seemed to me to be a book that is very highly focused on the father-son relationship. In Family Album you seem to move out into the wider context of family and your place in it. The family extends in all directions, towards the past and towards the future while also dominating the present.
Family has always been a concern of mine, for instance in 1971 I published, with another young poet, a chapbook called Poems Of A Period. It contains poems about my grandmother and uncle; from when I began writing I have written about my family. When I began writing, consciously recording insights, poems, short stories, and my diary, I knew the family was my major preoccupation. My father came from a large family and my brother and I were the last born among all the cousins, there was a considerable age gap between us and our other cousins, on the Morrissey side. I grew up attending a lot of funerals, surrounded by old people, with a sense that life was transitory, and hearing the stories of my mother's childhood, and what life was like in the "good old days". I grieved for that lost time of innocence when everything seemed so much better than it was when I was a child. I also felt, when I was twelve and thirteen years old, that there was a quality of bravery about these people, that what they had done should be recorded for future generations or it would be lost. If I didn't record their experiences then no one would, no one else would care enough to record their stories. Even in my own life, at that early age, I realized that I was forgetting things and I developed a mania for recording whatever I had done, for instance I started a diary when I went to the hospital to have my tonsils removed; this became a diary that I have kept everyday since I was fourteen years old. Also, writing has always been a way of making sense of my own life. I have a need for order and understanding; in writing about family and my own life I have come, I feel, to a greater understanding of my own life than I would otherwise have had. In fact, the writer mythologizes his or her life, turns experience into archetypes, turns the personal into the impersonal that is then available for whoever reads the work; and one hopes, that the reader will come away from one's work with a greater understanding of life.It can't all be just private, the writer must transcend the personal if the work is to last. That's part of the art of writing poetry. Apparently, I chose to write about family, but I feel that the subject chose me: that, too, is the way writing works. My feeling is that writing about family came to me as a given subject and demanded to be put into words. The insights and choices of the twelve year old extend far into one's life...
Northrop Frye commented on the shifting and interpenetrations of time and place in Family Album, and it is one of the book's most distinctive features. Was that a conscious literary device you decided to employ, or did it just "happen" as you worked with the material?
I may be writing about one particular family, but at the same time my concern is with all families, and the repetition of experience throughout time. Many things are not under our conscious control: we think, as parents, that we shape our children, that they are blank slates when they are born. But with experience we see that the child is born substantially the way he or she will be later on in life, almost despite the way in which the child is treated. This is not to justify abuse of a child, but to say that how our children turn out, generous or selfish, loving or mean spirited, it isn't all under our control. We are basically modifications of whatever has preceded us, and whatever will eventually come is a modification of what we are today. In chronological time there are universal qualities, love, death, birth, youth, old age, being a mother or a father, and so on. These are all archetypal experiences. So the present, past, and future, and geography or place, become one experience.
Finally, "the shifting and interpenetrations of time and place" was a conscious literary device; it is an effect that I wanted and the result of a lot of editing and years of work put into Family Album during a very stressful time in my life, a time when my writing was blocked because of the bad marriage I was in. So those are almost minimal poems, and they reflect how minimal and reduced I felt as a human being and as a poet; that is the reason for the gap of six years between Divisions and Family Album.
In earlier books like The Trees Of Unknowing and Divisions, your line breaks are often fragmented and fractured; this is especially true in Divisions where many of your images and statements have an almost shard-like quality. In Family Album there's more of a coherence as we move from line to line; the white spaces and silences aren't tugging at the words with the same kind of insistence. Do you think there's any reason for that change?
One matures as a writer, one's style develops, changes, it can't stay the same without exposing a lack of insight and development in one's writing. Anyone who reads a lot of poetry has seen a young poet's first book, it seems brilliant, original, and has a quality of freshness; however, sometimes it lacks depth and maturity. In Canada we like brilliant first books by poets, but we lack an audience for poetry that appreciates the more difficult and complex work that comes later in a poet's career. So, while The Trees Of Unknowing was relatively well received, Divisions is narrative and the rhythm of language is getting more complex; the themes and ideas are more complex as well. We have few older, mature poets in Canada; many young poets stop writing, or they turn to writing prose poems or prose, short stories or novels. Poets who have done the work, make it a little easier for younger poets, they have persevered in their writing. Enough accolades are given to younger poets; we need to review first books but also pay more attention to what mature poets are saying. As poets age we have deeper insights into life and it seems fundamental that we should be listened to, assuming we really are getting more mature and not just repeating the style and themes of the past. I am committed to building a body of work that communicates something substantial enough that it interests the critics, but accessible enough that whoever reads my work will come away spiritually and emotionally moved. But this takes years of work, an entire lifetime, and in some ways I am only now beginning this major work of the second half of my life.
In your most recent book, The Compass, you continue to tackle the domain of the family, reaching back to ancestors, and reaching towards the future through your son. But you also write more about your status within the family.
Well, the family is no longer out there, but in here, it is no longer externalized; there is a greater understanding of the dynamics of the family. We grow older and understand better what our parents have gone through. We see that either they struggled and did their best, or they were weak and didn't protect or even love all that much when you most needed it, when you were a child. There is also a new authority that one gains with age; we are no longer the child who is at the mercy of adults' whims, but the adult ourselves. There is a new emotional, spiritual, and existential authority; I don't know if everyone has this experience but I can see it in my own life. The second section of The Compass is called "Hades" for specific reasons. Divorce is a descent into hell; the family and home that took years to build is destroyed, in the time it takes to see your child drive away with your former mate. This is a devastating experience; but it has one redeeming aspect: it finally grows you up. So I get tired of hearing about men who are what Jung called "puer eternus"; these men, they are actually boys however old they are, can't really be trusted because their sensitivity has no basis in experience. Of course we want men to be sensitive to other people's feelings, but we also want it to come from an inner authority or else men (and women) can't really be trusted. So I would say that a person who has suffered, but not been crushed by his or her suffering, and who has gained an inner authority through the hard work of thinking deeply about life, this person writes from the center of his or her being and whatever is then written is from within experience, whether it is the family or what have you, and not from a distance, not from outside of experience.
In The Compass you also take on the question of renewing your own life. This book seems to be more about you, and your personal experiences.
This is certainly a book of self-discovery, the journey of self-discovery, as I have tried to make all of my books—works coming from a perception of the spiritual self. And it is a book of renewal, it begins with the family, with what is left of a once large family that has now dwindled to only a few people and the collective memories of the family. Then there is the "Hades" section that is concerned with divorce, separation, an elegy for what could have been but never was, and the devastation of suddenly losing everything and being alone. The final section, "The Compass," deals with finding a new love, and the experience of love; but it is still coming from me, they aren't really love poems, but poems of discovering love for the first time in my life; it is a tremendously powerful experience, an experience that is transformative and this is what the poems are saying: give all to love for love transforms and makes one whole. When I look at the books I have written I can see a pattern forming. There was the early The Trees of Unknowing which was quite an innocent book, the language in it was celebratory and outgoing, it was a book of hope and longing and even of love; but it was also naive and lacking the depth that comes with age. This was followed by three other books that come from the depths of inner awareness, realizing that life is suffering, realizing that one is alone, self-conscious, unhappy; they are books from William Blake's spiritual category of Experience. Divisions dealt with my father's death and the feeling of being divided from society; the poems in Family Album are short, concise, all well written but highly controlled and they have lost the earlier exuberance for life. Finally, The Compass is a book about the descent into hell, there is no hope left but only to endure a limited vision of life and the self; even the final section where there is spiritual renewal through love and sexual union is a fairly ego-centric perception of experience. I think my work in progress, The Yoni Rocks, will be a book of higher innocence, of inner authority and vision. This new work returns to the exuberance and love of The Trees of Unknowing but goes beyond it. These are poems about love, sex, insight, but also elegies and an awareness of the transience of time. A chapbook of mine published in Edmonton, The Divining Rod is a book of love, sexuality and renewal. So these last two books, The Yoni Rocks and The Divining Rod, go together. We need a poetry that presents values and spiritual insight to a society that is destroying itself.
Back in the late seventies and early eighties you edited the Montreal Journal of Poetics. What were you trying to get done with that magazine?
First of all, the title of the magazine was a parody of academic periodicals, that part was a put-on, the rest was serious. I created this as a mail-out magazine that I photocopied, perhaps I mailed sixty copies of each issue to people I thought might be interested in receiving it. I never charged for it; I did it for the fun of doing it. I wanted to keep the publication dates irregular, that is, whenever I felt like putting out an issue I did. I published articles by many poets as well as my own articles; it was a place for me to publish ideas about poetry and poetics. I kept it going from 1978 to 1985, when I felt it was time to move on to other things.
You've done a lot of reviewing of Canadian poetry books; how do you feel about what's going on in contemporary Canadian poetry?
I have reviewed books by unknown writers to the few real poets that we have in this country. On the whole I am fairly optimistic about Canadian poetry. At any time in a country's history to have two or three real poets is an achievement, and we have several first rate world class poets. Then there are the many people who write poetry as a pastime, who aren't really poets but who enjoy having one or possibly two books of their verse published, and there is a place for this in a national literature as well. Many poetry books couldn't have been published without the Canada Council and this has both a positive and negative side to it; the writers can only do their part in this job of creating a national culture, then it is also up to schools and the individual's own desire to be both an educated and cultured person. Of course the final critic of art is time, and most contemporary poetry will be forgotten; but that is true for literature of any country in the world. Culture, art, poetry, music, this is what saves us as a society from being submerged by popular culture; the collective heritage of culture going back thousands of years is what connects us to something beyond the currently fashionable; art, poetry, culture, this is what saves this age from materialism.
How does it feel to be an Anglo author in Quebec these days? Do you think things have changed since the early 70s, when you started as a writer?
The English speaking writer in Quebec has been a part of a living culture; being a writer may have seemed eccentric in other parts of the country, but writing has always been a possibility for young writers here; it wasn't viewed as something bizarre, eccentric. Layton, Dudek, Scott were all familiar names to me while I was in high school in Montreal; some even lived in my neighbourhood and we read their poems in our school anthologies. Meanwhile, Hugh MacLennan lived and wrote about life in Montreal and every young person read Two Solitudes in school. This was all very exciting for a young person who wanted to write, as these older writers provided inspiration and were models for the writer's life. Modern Canadian literature began in Montreal; if you wanted to be a writer in Canada you lived for a while in Montreal. But this has also proved to be a fool's paradise: a wealthy and therefore powerful minority has little place in a modern democracy; inevitably, many of the English in Montreal have moved west, some for political reasons, others for economic gain, Quebec has changed radically in the last twenty-five years; it is clearly a French speaking province now. We were a happy community and I regret that our numbers have diminished as they have. I like being an English-speaking Quebecker and I am proud of our history and the achievements of our community.
June 16, 1991—December 17, 1992
Copyright © 2003 The author