We Are Natural Creatures: Talking with Karen Solie
Karen Solie, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is one of the most important poets working in the English language today. Her third collection, Pigeon (House of Anansi, 2009), won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and her work has drawn comparisons to John Ashbery and been lauded by the likes of Michael Hofmann. Solie has served as an associate director of the Banff Centre Writing Studio program and as international writer-in-residence at the University of St. Andrews. She lives in Toronto. Her most recent collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Recently, I spoke with Karen about how the relationship between human life and the natural world manifests itself in her work, what the tension between language and silence means for poetry as a form, and whether poetry is inherently political.
The Rumpus: I want to start by asking you about what appears to me to be one of the prevailing tensions in your poems: the relationship between nature and human life. More specifically, the sense of nature as a force that lurks beneath modernity and continually breaks through the surface.
Karen Solie: I suppose I see the tension not in terms of forces at odds, but in the belief that human endeavor is separate from the natural world. We are natural creatures, and all creatures alter their environments. I suspect that separating the natural from the “man-made” has allowed us to distance ourselves, to neglect the implications of our technology, to compartmentalize our responsibility.
We can see the surface of Mars now (and leave junk there), but down here our problem-solving has been narrowed by power interests. If human life and nature are distinct entities, it allows us to prioritize. Prioritizing “progress” has served colonial enterprises very well. If we think of nature and the human as each going about its business, we can more easily rationalize climate change as an acceptable cost; or, in an absurd extension of this, insist that it has nothing to do with us, that islands of plastic in the ocean don’t exist. It allows us to treat wilderness as a playground, to exoticize people we characterize as closer to it, who we then associate with acceptable costs.
“Nature” is that which “feeds our souls,” which seems an apt metaphor. Remember that Simpsons’ episode in which a classroom filmstrip diagram of “The Food Chain” shows arrows from all creatures pointing to the human’s stomach? Once in awhile we are forced into awareness of our place in the system, the fact that we are not the end point in the food chain. As climate and environmental events have demonstrated, we don’t have the last word. The fastest and easiest response to this fact is avoidance or hysterical denial. So, in what little poetry—my poetry, anyway—can do, I hope to keep alive, or at least gesture toward, the tension of complexity, complication, responsibility.
Rumpus: Would you say that there is a link here between the fragility of human life and the tension between silence and language in poetry as a form?
Solie: I would. We consistently encounter the limits of what language can articulate, limits which condition thinking and perception. “Words fail me,” we say, when confronted with an unassimilable experience of which pattern and sense cannot be made, with a feeling that does not fit a category we can name. My own experience of language is largely an experience of English, despite it being the second language of both parents. I know you’re referring to language generally as a system of communication, but I suspect that for multilingual people there is some additional room.
In terms of poetics and philosophy, I do find the limit of language a profound and powerful zone. It’s where failure becomes energy. The problem, if one can call it that, of thinking beyond articulation is also very interesting cognitively, intellectually, spiritually. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” We can use language to walk the perimeter of the abyss. As readers we can feel the draft emerging from it, can sense the stone falling endlessly. At the limit of language we meet our mortality. But not only at its limit. Every time we describe someone or something, call them by their names, we acknowledge their transience, and our own.
It’s difficult to think outside the terms of language and silence, outside ourselves as communicators and receivers. The concept of silence as we’re using it here only means something inside language. Silence is not the absence of sound. It’s not even the absence of language, as we think with language. Silence, in this context, is the absence of a response. It’s sending something out and receiving nothing in return. It has something to do with a lack of control. As Max Picard writes, silence is more than simply a condition we can produce at will. I’m reminded of Wislawa Symborszka’s Nobel lecture, in which she writes: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’.” A phrase, she says, that’s small, but “flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”
Poetry can arise from an encounter with the limit, using the capabilities of language to gesture beyond it. And yes, form is part of this. Subtle managements of syntax, the sentence, the line, the overall engagement with form, are gestures of control that should, ideally, enliven and complicate what can be written with the mystery of what cannot. I love this passage from Fanny Howe:
There is literally no way to express actions occurring simultaneously. If I, for instance, want to tell you that a man I loved, who died, said he loved me on a curbstone in the snow, but this occurred in time after he died, and before he died, and will occur again in the future, I can’t say it grammatically.
That final phrase seems released like a paper lantern over the parapet.
Rumpus: To expand this further, I wanted to ask about the way time works in your poems, which often seem to conjoin a kind of instantaneous temporality with an expansive, almost geological sense of time. Do you see this shift between registers as a vital component of your work?
Solie: That’s a generous interpretation! I do enjoy working in different registers—tonal, rhetorical, metaphorical, musical, I suppose, if these are even different things. Sometimes I err on the side of enjoying it too much. But it feels closer to what thinking is like. No one thinks wholly in the abstract or wholly in particulars, wholly in terms of the immediate or the expanse. My language reservoir gets runoff from my religious upbringing, regional vernacular, work jargon, advertising, sports commentary, music, writing, each place I live. Everyone draws from their own. So I guess it is a vital component in that, for me, it’s more accurate to lived life.
Rumpus: How does this connect to the sense of place in your poems? The expansive landscape of Canada often seems to bring with it a feeling of geographical displacement and liminality.
Solie: I hesitate to generalize about the effects of the Canadian landscape, or of landscape, period. A sense of place in any landscape has to do with one’s experience of it, which involves history, demographic factors, events, inclinations. And that sense of a place evolves—should, I think—as times change and one learns more. Liminality, displacement, are not about where you are, necessarily, but how you are, and how you are apprehended and treated by those who put themselves at the center. I grew up in rural southwest Saskatchewan, and as a grandchild of immigrant settlers, as white, Catholic, working class, I was pretty much the same as everyone else. If certain experiences pushed me toward the edges of that particular community, to become largely an observer, this did not diminish the larger privileges of being at the center. It may have complicated them, but it didn’t negate them.
As I learned more about the history of the place I still think of as home, which is in fact on the traditional lands of the Plains Cree, my identifications were necessarily complicated. It was only after moving away to work, and then to go to university—where I met young people who talked about their “gap year,” who’d read Camus and Whitman in high school, and who said things like “You haven’t been to Paris? You must go!”—that I realized what I’d thought of as the center of the world was not. I met people for whom growing up in the country was a bucolic fantasy, when in fact I’d long been aware of the industrialized monoculture of even the small family farm, the crime profiles of out-of-the-way places. This is straying from the question of landscape, I realize, and becoming quite tangled, so I’ll leave it here. I tend to think my way into paper bags rather than out of them.
Rumpus: Chance or the notion of the accident also features regularly in your poems, both thematically and in their composition (for example in your use of found poems), so I wanted to ask how do you see the function of the accidental in poetry? How important is the element of chance?
Solie: There was a point in my writing life I thought so much about probability, about cause and effect chains, about chance, that I couldn’t order from a menu. It was ridiculous. Okay, I’m still like that, though these preoccupations have evolved into considerations of indecision, regret, and error. But at the time, I was writing Modern and Normal, in which most of my found poems appear. Strangely, the found poems are among the most methodical, procedural, regulated, I’ve made. I found them because I went looking, and did so in texts as far afield from poetry as I could manage: my uncle’s gun collector annuals, my dad’s old algebra textbooks, 1970s bird and insect guides, bar talk. I neither added nor removed anything. I selected fragments, and I lineated them, which is never accidental. Perhaps they ameliorated intimations of chaos.
In writing, accident and chance are as important to me as deliberation, judgment, preference. These categories operate simultaneously at every stage, and it can be not so easy to untangle them. Knowledge and practice create the conditions for happy accidents. Openness to what each word suggests, to unforeseen chemical reactions of proximity, to ending up unintentionally in some weird place, is crucial to seeing possibilities inside which to exercise discernment. Some accidents are mistakes. It’s important to know the difference, though one doesn’t always, at the time.
Rumpus: Philosophical references, both overt and concealed, are scattered throughout your work. How would you say philosophy animates your poems?
Solie: As much and in the same way as anything else does, I suppose. I enjoy many writers whose work falls into that category, and especially those whose writing walks through genre walls of philosophy, autobiography, history, art criticism, theology, poetics, the sciences. But this kind of work nourishes how I think, and influences what I write, no more nor less than the novels, poetry, field guides, and investigative journalism I read. Or what I know about heavy machinery, hockey, or drugs. If this makes me sound well-rounded, I’m really not. But I don’t have a hierarchy of influences. I also eavesdrop.
Rumpus: In relation to this last point, philosophy, among other things, proceeds by both the formation of new concepts and through the redeployment, the re-contextualization, of pre-existing modes of thought. Would you consider a similar movement to be at work in poetry, a drive to both find strikingly new arrangements for language and to push commonplace, familiar words into new surroundings?
Solie: Absolutely. And as you suggest, this happens in many other realms, intentionally or not— science is always having to come up with new metaphors. All technologies push the commonplace into new surroundings and need to invent or modify language for it. People in power mangle and distort language in ways that are astonishing even as they are shameful and dangerous. One need only listen in the shops, on the streets, or know someone in high school, to affirm that language is alive, warts and all.
Rumpus: This is more of a practical question about rhythm, as your work is very formally diverse, and I wondered how, when you’re working, the rhythm and spacing of the poem tends to emerge?
Solie: Often I have a sense of the tone or mood of a piece before I start writing, though composing the sentences can shift that. The tone sounds like how I’ve been thinking through the idea—if that makes any sense—what the mode of that has been, the urgency, how loud or crowded it feels inside that thought. The different coping strategies and avoidances involved, the quality of attention, are its progressions. One goal is for a poem to think itself on the page, to generate a mood the way thought can, but I don’t know how close I’ve come to that. But I start out with tone, almost like the key and time signature it’s played in, and see how the phrases look. Then comes the long process of tuning it in, with the tools all over the table, each calibration guiding the next. I actually feel better when it ends up differently than I’d thought starting out, when it’s outgrown or resisted its concept, because I know then I’ve at least paid attention to its potential as a living and incomplete thought.
I’m unable to separate intuition, imagination, invention, impulse, from mechanics and technique. I don’t feel that first one happens, then the other comes into play. I also know that I need to be aware of my habits with regard to rhythm, structure, syntax, the shape and duration of the thought. I fall into what I think is my natural cadence and momentum, but what feels natural can be simply habitual. I hear and see it happening in my length of line and syntax all the time. The tension between sounding like oneself and sounding like oneself is ever-present. It’s one of the simultaneous imperatives that feels contradictory. Be open. And be vigilant.
Rumpus: Would you say that part of being a poet is maintaining a mistrustful relationship with language, to continue to question its power even as you seek to harness it?
Solie: It’s important to maintain a critical awareness of our intentions, even as we respect the idiosyncrasies of our thought. Language is a system of signs we manipulate. It can communicate ambiguity, uncertainty, irony, suggest several things simultaneously, and it can also communicate something other than what its users intend. So the mistrustful relationship is really with our own usage. We need to be alert to what is actually on the page, in addition to what we intend to say.
We also need to be able to distinguish actual intention from stated intention in the language we receive. A passage by C.D. Wright comes to mind here:
Poetry and advertising (the basest mode of which is propaganda) are in direct and total opposition. If you do not use language you are used by it. If you not recognize the terms peacekeeper missile and preemptory strike for oxymorons, your hole has already been dug. If you do not detect the blackest of ironies in the Army’s made-up-on-Madison-Avenue, Be all You Can Be, never mind the perennial for no one will remember you.
We need to be conscious of why we think what we think, as writers and as readers. I assume all writers have habits. Habits of thought as well as, say, relying too heavily on the sentence fragment or a love of impersonal pronouns. I wrote something relatively recently about how notions of inspiration and imagination, even as they assert freedom and invention, may rely on culturally determined concepts and practices. To be sure, when our writerly intuition just “feels right,” sometimes it is. We know, however, that respecting one’s intuition is also to question it. This is from T.E. Hulme’s “Romanticism and Classicism,” published in 1924:
Take Spinoza’s example of a stone falling to the ground. If it had a conscious mind it would, he said, think it was going to the ground because it wanted to. So you with your pretended free judgment about what is and what is not beautiful. The amount of freedom in man is much exaggerated. That we are free on certain rare occasions, both my religion and the views I get from metaphysics convince me. But many acts which we habitually label free are in reality automatic.
What, we can ask ourselves, does “right” mean; and why? What does that “right” feeling satisfy in us? What does it presume? Our role as writers is to pay attention, which includes attention to our own practice, to nurturing and challenging our thinking. Second-guessing our intentions, our articulations, our habits, our perception, is not a bad thing. It only leads to inertia if we cease to engage with it. She says, feeling so often inert…
Rumpus: Finally, and perhaps most generally, do you think that poetry is inherently political?
Solie: Yes. Even when work does not overtly, or even subtly, address political questions; even when work is not read in a political framework or frame of mind, one’s contexts as a writer and as a reader are always active, always inform the work. People exist in relation to each other, to structures of power, and feel their privileges and limitations within them. We are part of historical narratives both official and unofficial, as are the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the language we use to do it.
Photograph of Karen Solie © David Seymour.